Hello, my name is Orty Ortwein and this is my bookmobile blog! I just find bookmobiles really fascinating, and if you’re here, then so do you. I hope to update every week, with a new factual tale every time. Of course, I’ll keep you posted. Look around and let me know what you think! (Many thanks to the Bethlehem Public Library of Delmar, NY, for letting me use their photo in the banner).
Members of the New York City Fire Department relax with books on loan from the library
Police stations and firehouses were among the turn-of-the-century workplaces that were loaned crates of books from women’s groups and public libraries. The Newark Free Public Library gave its engine houses collections containing 20 volumes, half fiction and half nonfiction, starting in 1897. 46 fire and 6 police stations received them in Philadelphia starting in 1899. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh reported supplying 21 Companies from 19 collections, each averaging 25 to 30 books, in 1911. Seattle, Buffalo, Brooklyn, New York, and Cincinnati were among the many large cities to supply its firemen with their own library book collections.
Normally these books were solely for firefighters, but sometimes they were general deposit stations the public at large could use. A unique relationship between fire departments and libraries can be found in Orinda, CA, near San Francisco. In 1935 the library was moved into a renovated building that it shared with the fire department. Very likely it was the only firehouse/library anywhere. This odd couple split up in 1944, when Contra Costa County sold the building and the library relocated to a church.
The firehouse library of Orinda, CA.
The Commercial Car of Noblesville, IN.
By 1922, technically over 50% of the nation’s bookmobiles were in Indiana. That’s because of the nine that existed, five were in the Hoosier State; Plainfield, 1915; Gas City, 1917; Logansport, 1919; Noblesville, 1920; and Elkhart, 1921.
Noblesville’s was purchased at the behest of librarian Lulu Meisse. The Dodge Brothers Commercial Car cost approximately $1,500 to buy and retrofit. Working with two other women, Jeanette Williamson and Esther Heinzmann, the early bookmobile began running in the fall of 1920 and had 16 routes. The territory covered about 170 square miles, with routes that added up to almost 500 miles of unpaved roads of mud and ice (the Commercial Car was chosen in part because it earned a hardy reputation serving as ambulances during the Great War).
“Parnassus”, as the car was nicknamed, carried roughly 300 books on its exterior shelves and circulated between 100 to 150 titles per trip. The Dodge also had room inside for a few crates of reading material the librarians took to area schoolhouses. Otherwise the car visited mostly private residences, about 800 homes total. Initially the librarians stopped at every house they saw, finding out who wanted their services by simply knocking on the door salesman-style. Some weren’t interested, and a few even thought the entire venture a waste of their taxes. (Meisse described the reaction of two men in the town of Aroma; “They shook their heads and bemoaned the great expense of this service, telling each other how needless and wasteful it was, and how it raised taxes beyond human power to pay, and that it must be done away with.”) These disgruntled taxpayers were the exception. For the most part, Parnassus was well received. If anything, eager farming families were disappointed the vehicle didn’t have more books. As Miesse herself reported, “We were not expecting and not well enough prepared for the voracious appetite for reading matter which we created.”
Besides Noblesville, Parnassus also served the townships of Wayne, White River, and Fall Creek. In 1922, service to these three townships was discontinued due to residents not wanting to pay the library tax levy, forcing the bookmobile to retreat to Noblesville. Further economic hardship caused the car to be sold to a farmer in 1932, who used it to hawk vegetables. Bookmobile service wouldn’t return to Noblesville until the 1980 “Knowmobile”.
Children use Parnassus outside of a one-room schoolhouse.
The first bookmobile to run south of Maryland was the Pathfinder of Greenville, South Carolina, though strictly speaking it operated just outside city limits. The Greenville Public Library had been founded in 1921 but was limited to city residents. This barred the workers living in the cotton mill towns located in the city’s outskirts from using the library. Seeking to fill this void, library board chairman and local philanthropist Thomas F. Parker bought and furnished “The Pathfinder”, a bookmobile soley for the cotton mill workers and their children. It stopped at the schools built by the mills for the sake of workers’ children, and at the cotton mills themselves. In the latter case the Pathfinder visited during shift changes and lunch breaks. It was popular enough to justify a second bookmobile being purchased a year later.
Most bookmobiles are slated for the junkyard after they’ve served their purpose, but a few lucky ones get a unique second life. Case in point is Bill’s Bookmobile in Honolulu. For seven years, the bookmobile seemed to be destined to meet the fate of other abandoned vehicles, decaying as it was in storage and being cannibalized for spare parts. But In 2006, the Friends of the Library of Hawaii purchased and renovated the vehicle into a permanent bookstore that is now parked in Honolulu. Over half of the $11,000 renovation was paid for by the estate of Bill Harper, an avid reader and library lover. The store opened to great fanfare in 2007, with an opening ceremony that included a lion dance and music from the Royal Hawaiian Band. The bookmobile can carry up to 3,000 books and all of the proceeds support the 50 public libraries of Hawaii.
Rochester, Minnesota’s hybrid. Courtesy of the Rochester Public Library.
In February 2012, Mendocino County, CA, launched America’s first hybrid bookmobile. Funding came from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and a grant from Air Quality Management. It is a Freightliner diesel/electric vehicle that recharges at each stop and has 50% more the efficiency of the bookmobile it replaced. “Even using power for a half-hour, it only takes a few minutes to recharge,” explained driver Dave Frick. It also comes equipped with solar panels that charge the battery running the air-conditioning and electricity. The exterior was painted by local artist James Sibbet. As another form of recycling, it carries a box of donated books for patrons to pick from.
A few months later, Rochester, MN followed with a bookmobile powered by a hybrid drive train and generator. Other environmentally-friendly innovations include solar panels, LED lights and recycled rubber floors. It’s estimated that these green technologies save the library $3,000 in operating costs each year.
Mendocino County’s hybrid bookmobile, the first in the country. Courtesy of the Mendocino County Public Library.
In 2012, The Toledo-Lucas County Public Library of Ohio launched its own Cybermobile, dubbed the “Classroom on Wheels.” While not a bookmobile per se, it is unique among library vehicles in that its sole purpose is bringing digital instruction to patrons. Equipped with 12 computers and a smartboard, the Cybermobile has provided patrons with basic computer classes, resume writing workshops, and GED courses, among other services. For preschoolers it hosts “Tiny Tech”, or early digital literacy programs. TLCPL has also partnered with other organizations, such as Mercy College’s School of Nursing, to provide patrons with free health workshops and children’s vision and hearing screenings.
Interior of the “Classroom on Wheels”.
The Papyrus II, with Roger and Louise Amory on board.
From 1954 to 1972, The Johann Fust Public Library of Boca Grande, FL, used a yacht to bring books to islands in the surrounding area . The boat went to such islands as Bokeelia, Useppa, Mondongo, Sea Grape Island, Cabbage Key, and Captiva. The first, Papyrus, ran for four years before being replaced by the Papyrus II. Librarian Pansy Cost organized the effort. The boats were piloted by Capt. Adelbert “Del” Johnson or by the husband and wife team of Roger and Louise Amory. In 1972, the board of the Johann Fust Public Library voted to sell the unique craft.