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).

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Kenosha and the Last of the Big Rigs


Kenosha’s “RIG”, seen here when just-purchased in 1987, ran until 2004 and represented the end of an era. Photo, Kenosha News.

In the 60s and 70s, it wasn’t uncommon for a bookmobile to be a 40-foot-long, 18-wheeler tractor-trailer. Increased regulations in the 80s meant that such vehicles could only be driven by a licensed trucker, putting the era of these massive libraries on wheels to an end.
Kenosha Pubic Library’s “RIG” – an acronym that stands for Reading is Great, the nickname a result from a city-wide contest- was the last of the tractor-trailers. KPL purchased the AMC truck and Great Dane trailer for $92,000 in 1987 (the AMC was later replaced by an International Harvester). The 40-foot trailer was the last bookmobile in the country to be pulled by a semi. It could carry up to 10,000 items and was powered by a propane generator. KPL replaced the 18-wheeler with a bus in 2004, which included three laptop computers and an awning.


Kenosha’s new bookmobile, 2004. Photo, Kenosha News.

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Happy National Bookmobile Day

Hey all! April 16th is National Bookmobile Day. Attempts to make this a legal holiday have not come through. In the meantime, enjoy this clip of bookmobiles on parade. Every year the American Library Association, there is a parade of bookmobiles. Have fun! parade

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The Free Wheeler of Philadelphia


In 1971 the Free Library of Philadelphia  launched the “Free Wheeler.” This small van provided “on-the-street library service” in the local Model Cities Area projects. The staff parked at street corners, set up an umbrella, and lent out paperbacks to the mostly black and Latino population. During the winter, the Free Wheeler maintained a series of deposit stations in barber shops, mental health centers, and doctor’s offices, among other places. Materials could be returned to any other station. The Free Wheeler also published and distributed pamphlets detailing local social services.

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The Cybermobile of the Catskills


Starting in January of 2001, the Four County Library System, headquartered in Vestal, NY, began sending out “The Cybermobile”. While not the first to provide library patrons with internet access, this bookmobile was the first in America to do so by satellite. Located on the outskirts of the Catskills, the four counties of Broome, Chenango, Delaware and Otsego are so isolated as to not even be completely accessible by land line. Satellite was quickly determined the best way to bring the Web to the Cybermobile’s 60 plus stops. It had a 1.2-meter controllable rooftop satellite dish antenna and full-time access with 100% closed network capability, essentially the same method used by the military to bring communication to remote areas. The vehicle boasted six ThinkPad notebook computers (courtesy of IBM) and two printers. The $295,000 cost of the project was covered by grants and other support, including a $50,000 New York State Senate initiative, a $105,000 federal appropriation from US Senator Charles Schumer and US Representative Maurice Hinchey, as well as grants from five private foundations and the Verizon Foundation. The Cybermobile was also supported by Federal Library Services and Technology Act funds.

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Posted in 2000s | Leave a comment

The Book Boats of Lake Chelan, Washington


Jo Pardee oversees the books being loaded by crane onto a ship.

In 1951 Jo Pardee, head librarian of the Chelan County Library in Washington
State, managed to secure funds to bring books to small towns located on Lake
Chelan, deep in the mountains. Jo loaded her station wagon with crates of books
and drove to the dock at 25 mile creek. The books traveled by boat up the
narrow lake and were redistributed in such towns as Lucerne , Holden, and
Stehikan. In Lucerne, the books were unloaded by crane before being driven by
bus to the mountain mining town of Holden.


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The Bookmobile That Became a Real Library; Collinsville, Pennsylvania


The Collinsville Community Library was bookmobile permanently parked in a discount center parking lot. Courtesy, Collinsville Library.

On rare occasions, a bookmobile turns into a real library. When York County, PN.,  was appropriated a meager $40,000 to bring library services to two communities, Collinsville librarian Evelyn Minick paid $350 for a rusted-out bookmobile. Local artist Lillian Hill refurbished it and later became its volunteer librarian. In October of 1980,  stocked with 2,500 paperbacks, records and magazines, the converted bookmobile opened its two doors for the first time, in a discount center parking lot. There it sat, open 40 hours a week, staffed by a combination of volunteers and paid staff. It had two solar panels in the back and was dubbed the “solar library” (“When the sun shines, they are more than adequate as a heating source.” ) Otherwise, a propane heater kept the  mini-library warm.

In 1982 the Solar Library was replaced by a trailer. Seven years later the Philadelphia Electric Company donated a couple of unused trailers to expand the library again. To this day the library is three trailers rolled into one structure.

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The Outpost Libraries of West Virginia


An newly-inserted outpost library in West Virginia.

Due to the energy crisis of the 70s, it became a common practice for bookmobiles to hit fewer stops for longer periods of time. Sometimes, these bookmobiles would be parked all day at the same spot, making the vehicle more of a traveling library branch, or “branchmobile.”

The branchmobile concept was taken to an extreme in West Virginia. This mountainous state had long used bookmobiles to reach isolated areas, but driving large trucks on the icy roads was dangerous and difficult. Starting in 1973, the state began to use instant libraries, also known as “outpost libraries.” The library was a narrow house that could be pulled by a tractor trailer, then left in one place indefinitely. After some basic construction, a town could then instantly have a library branch. These outpost libraries could carry about 8,000 books. Later, the state used “modular libraries”, which were larger, able to hold approximately 15,000 volumes. There were 65 of these portable buildings by 1986 operating in the backwoods of West Virginia.


Patrons enjoy an outpost library.

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