America’s 2nd Bookmobile

1916 bookmobile PPL


Plainfield’s “Auto-Book-Wagon,” 1916.

Courtesy of the Indiana Room; Plainfield-Guilford Township Public Library.

Plainfield, Indiana, is most likely the sight of America’s second bookmobile. In 1909 Plainfield librarian Mayme C. Snipes set up a series of deposit stations in the surrounding area, boxes of books mostly kept in schools. In her 1915 annual report she voiced concern that while the deposit station network helped, only 25 percent of rural patrons had access to books. To solve this gap, she advocated using the new technology of automobiles. The board agreed, and purchased a Ford chassis in 1916. A local wagon maker built the body, with shelves on both sides and a runway in the middle for storing magazines, art prints, and extra books. The entire vehicle and retrofitting cost $608.

The Auto-Book-Wagon hit the road in the summer of 1916. The truck drew mixed reactions at first, encountering the same problem of other early bookmobiles in people not understanding the concept. The Ford was often mistaken for an ambulance, medicine wagon, sometimes a popcorn truck. But ultimately the rural patrons came to look forward to the Auto-Book-Wagon’s trips. The Wagon was able to reach each registered family every five to six weeks, letting each farmhouse take as much time as they needed.

The Auto-Book-Wagon was retired in January, 1924

Miller, Ida Mae. “Plainfield’s Auto-Book-Wagon.” Focus on Indiana Libraries, vol. 23, 1969. Pgs. 26-31.

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Dayton, Ohio: The Bookmobile Goes To The City

DaytonBookwagon 1924

The Dayton-Montgomery County Library book truck, 1924. The shelves could easily be removed and strapped to the floor for travel. Courtesy of the Dayton Metro Library.

The bookmobile of the Dayton-Montgomery County Library was the first to serve a major metropolitan area, starting in October of 1923. The library spent $687 on a Ford One truck that was then outfitted with four bookshelves on each side. The truck carried 600 books and 100 magazines, everything held in place with canvas straps that “stretched across the front and buttoned on carriage curtain buttons.” The staff of the book wagon would ultimately consist of three. Two were pages trained in driving the truck, checking out books and “holding the discipline”; the third was a librarian. Her role was to explain the new service to prospective customers, provide reader’s advisory, and sometimes take patron’s reference questions back to the main library. Because of the limited selection, patrons were allowed only two books and one magazine per card. Nonetheless, the book wagon circulated over 4,000 books in its first six weeks, along with registering over 900 new library users.

Phillip, John.
“An Overview of the History of Bookmobile Service in Ohio: A Mirror of the National Scene.” Bookmobiles and Outreach Services Vo. 7 no.1 2004 pg. 29-36.

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The Bikebrarians


Children check out the Books on Bikes. Courtesy of the Seattle Public Library.

Whereas many libraries have used diesel or natural gas vehicles, no bookmobiles were greener than the zero-emission libraries on wheels pedaled by the 11 “bikebrarians” of the Seattle Public Library. In the summer of 2013, SPL had a bicycle trailer custom-built that could haul up to 400 books and a billboard. This being Seattle, the books were kept in a waterproof container, and the trailer had a special slot for a beach umbrella. The Books on Bikes pilot program stopped at farmer’s markets, parks, schools, and community events. The trailer radiated its own wi-fi, allowing patrons to check out books and sign up for library cards via the bikebrarian’s iPad. Teams of two or three cycling librarians hauled all of the equipment to each stop. “Bob”, as the project was abbreviated, cost less than $5000.

“Like Riding a Bike.” LJ, Sept. 15, 2013, pg. 25.

Email exchange with  Dave Valencia Regional Manager
Ballard, Fremont, Magnolia, Queen Anne Branches The Seattle Public  Library, dated 11/15/2013.

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In the wake of the 70s energy crisis, bookmobiles were suddenly looked at as gargantuan gas guzzlers from another era. Library administrators felt the need to have their vehicles increase efficiency by offering more services, such as providing health care resources and/or general services for the illiterate. One of the more unique combinations were the “artmobiles” to be found in Florida and Wisconsin.

The artmobile of Miami-Dade Public Library System carried art exhibitions along
with basic library services. This service ran into the early 90s, with the bookmobiles painted by such artists as the New Realist Lowell Nesbitt.


A dazzle of Zebras blend in perfectly with Miami-Dade’s Artmobile in Loxahatchee, FL.  Courtesy of the Vasari Project, Miami-Dade Public Library System. Photo taken by Rafael Salazar, 1987.

The Winding Rivers System of Lacross, WI, boasted an artmobile that carried traveling performers and artists, including weavers, potters, actors, poets musicians and even belly dancers. The artists often led classes for younger patrons.

String Quartet Aug 1978

A string quartet gives a free concert in Wisconsin, 1978. Courtesy of the Winding Rivers Library System.

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The First Online Bookmobile


Katherine Phenix and Penny Hall check out their bookmobile’s online catalog.


In July of 1985, the city of Westminster, CO, became the first in the country to have a bookmobile with an online computer (Westminster also has the distinction of being the first city to issue its police cars “lap computers”, in 1985). This being the 80s, there was no internet as such, but the librarian could access the library’s mainframe from the bookmobile itself. This gave bookmobile patrons the ability to instantly access the library’s electronic catalog remotely. The information traveled via radio frequency by means of an antennae that was connected to the bookmobile’s computer modem. The information went from the bookmobile to another receiver attached to the city’s municipal building. This “data radio” was paid for with a grant of 11,702 from the Library Services and Construction Act Title 1. Because it traveled by radio, the library needed FCC approval to get its own frequency. As the library stated in its press release, “Taking the bookmobile out of the dark ages of non-instantaneous information…brings information to typical bookmobile patrons, like the elderly and handicapped.” This statement was well ahead of it’s time.

Petterson, Marylin. “Bookmobile Tie-in First in County.” Westminster Window, July 18th, 1985.

“Bookmobile Claims a First in Online Mobility.” American Libraries, September 1985 Pg. 534.

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The Merchant Marine Libraries


A sailor looks over books provided by the American Merchant Marine Library Association.

1921 saw the founding of the American Merchant Marine Library Association. It was a private corporation founded “for the purpose of maintaining a library for the free use of the officers and crews of American merchant vessels”. The merchant marine was not an organization but a noun that referred to the group of commercial shipping vessels registered in the U.S. Its Library Association was completely non-profit and supported by voluntary contributions. The A.M.M.L.A. asked for a donation of $35 per steamship, the sailors themselves also contributed, and donations were solicited via the quarterly newsletter, Sea Letter. The books were donated mostly by seamen and their families, and the Association also organized book drives in coastal cities. The headquarters in New York held 45,000 volumes, and the branches in major seaports across the country each held about 15,000.

In each port, a Port Representative organized traveling libraries of 40 books and brought them to ships, swapping each one for the old collection. Each ship had an appointed crewman to look after the library (often the radio operator). The Port Representative also collected donated books and magazines from his locality, was responsible for local publicity for the Association, and submitted reports to headquarters. About 65,000 books were at sea at any given time.

“Sea Legs for a Library” Wilson Library Bulletin, April 1942 Vol. 16 no. 8 pgs 616-618

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When Disaster Strikes

Gertie 001

“Gertie”, the bookmobile that came the rescue. Courtesy of Waukegan Public Library.    

In 2005, the Illinois city of Waukegan, best-known as Ray Bradbury’s hometown, had another claim to fame; the oldest still-running bookmobile. The 1962 Gerstenlager had been running for forty-two years. Surprisingly, “Gertie” had logged only 50,000 miles, but time was wearing down on the old book bus and the Waukegan Public Library had decided to put her out to pasture. Wanting Gertie to have a good home after so many years of dedicated service, WPL shopped around for a suitable place for her to retire. They offered her as an exhibit to the Smithsonian, an offer which was declined. Trying to sell her on Ebay fared no better. Then in 2005, an odd opportunity arose from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The natural disaster devastated the New Orleans area, leaving its residents without, among many other necessities, basic library service.  The North Suburban Library System to which WPL belongs adopted the county of Jefferson Parish, LA., and immediately solicited some 300 boxes of donated books. Shipping them south was another matter. Enter Gertie.

In the spring of 2006, Gertie’s long-time driver Joseph Kalinowski drove her out of Waukegan for the last time, to Kenosha, WI. Too old to make the trip, she was loaded onto a flatbed truck and driven to Louisiana on St. Patrick’s Day, 2006. She would end up being the sole library for the citizens of Jefferson County until they were able to dig out from under the disaster. It was a fitting end for a truck that had served so faithfully for so long. As  WPL Public Relations Manager Elizabeth Stearns put it, “We like to think she’s retired to the South.”

Kuczka, Susan.  “Bookmobile gets a ride to help the Big Easy: Waukegan’s `Gertie’ will replace library.” Chicago Public Library, March 11, 2006.

Gianopulos, Peter. “Gertie the Love Bus.” North Shore August 2004, pg. 24.

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