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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The Itinerating Libraries of East Lothian


One of Brown’s “itinerating libraries.”  

One of the forefathers of the traveling library movement was a Scottish religious scholar and educator named Samuel Brown. After a miraculous recovery from pneumonia in the early 19th century, Brown decided to repay the grace God had shown him. His primary cause would be bringing books to people out of reach of libraries and universities. In 1817 he purchased a collection of 200 books and divided them equally among four rural Scottish villages in the county of East Lothian, (just east of Edinburgh); Aberlady, Salton, Tyninghame, and Garvald. These “itinerating libraries” were to be rotated among the towns every two years. Combined, the four book cases generated 1461 check-outs in their first year alone. Encouraged by this early success, he decided to make the portable libraries his calling.

By 1836 Brown had set up 47 such libraries in East Lothian, for a total of 3850 books. By the time of his death in 1839, no one in the East Lothian was more than a mile and half from a library, astonishing for the early 19th century (this statistic included convicts; the library in Haddington was in a jail). He would spread his cause beyond Scotland. South Africa, Russia, Ireland and the West Indies were other beneficiaries  of his philanthropy.

Sharon G Almquist, ed. “Distributed Learning and Virtual Librarianship.”

Santa Barbara, Calif. : Libraries Unlimited, 2011.


Brown, Samuel.“Some account of Itinerating Libraries and Their Founder.“

W. Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh, 1856.


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The Bronx Night Bookmobile


Courtesy of the New York Public Library


Bookmobile routes were formally established in the Bronx in 1928. Headquartered at the Fordham Library, the borough’s book wagon carried 650 books total, half for children and half for adults. It was probably the first bookmobile in the country to have night stops. For the sake of commuters and workers, it routinely visited train stations during evening rush hours. In the summer, the driver set up a beach umbrella to create an outdoor reading space.

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The Flying Library of New Mexico

Starting in 1963, Winston Marks routinely flew 90 miles from The Tinian Trading Post that he managed in New Mexico (located in the isolated “checkerboard” region of the state) to the town of Farmington, New Mexico. Once there, Marks met the Northwestern Regional Library bookmobile, selected the books he needed, and flew back. He did this every three months, switching out the books every time. The books he selected would be checked out by 50 or so Navajo families in the Tinian Trading Post area. He developed this system after bookmobile service to Tinian was discontinued due to poor roads and the 200-mile round trip from Aztec, where the bookmobile was headquartered.


Post manager Winston Marks picks up books from the Northwestern Regional Library bookmobile, circa 1963.


“Books by Air.” Reale, Virginia. Unesco Bulletin for Libraries, 18, 1964. Pgs. 300-301.

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Gerstenslager, Bookmobile King


A page from the Gerstenslager Company publication, “The Bookmobile Story”, describing the various models of bookmobiles available to order.   

If you were in a bookmobile in the 50s or 60s, odds are your were in a Gerstenslager, the company that had a near monopoly on the flood of bookmobiles produced as a result of the 1956 Library Services Act..

Starting in the 19th century as a maker of horse buggies, by the 1920s Gerstenslager had switched to making custom-designed vans. In the 50s, this automobile plant in Wooster, Ohio, found a niche market making specialized vehicles for “libraries, fire rescue departments, dental units, canteens, mobile x-ray units, hospitals and television units used by all the major networks.” The Midwestern manufacturer was awarded the contract for making postal vehicles in the 50s, and also made five “Wienermobiles” for Oscar-Meyer. But Gerstenslager’s claim to fame will always be the bookmobiles.

In 1949, Gerstenslager head A.W. Baehr organized a national tour to show off the Pioneer model of bookmobile at libraries across the country. The advertising worked, and by the mid 60s the company had numerous styles for libraries to choose from. While Gerstenslager made hundreds of bookmobiles, they did not roll off the assembly line. Each was custom built and painted according to the needs the individual library, with the librarians often personally visiting the plant to oversee their vehicle’s production. By some estimates, Gerstenslager enjoyed 90% of the bookmobile market in the post-war boom. The company’s relationship with the library world was such that it even had a representative on the ALA’s  board of directors. More than a few libraries nick-named their bookmobile “Gertie.”


“The Bookmobile Story.” Gerstenslager Co., 1963.

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