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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Movies on the Bookmobile.


The FPL bookmobile shows a matinee , circa 1957.

In the summer of ’57, the Fitchburg Public Library came up with a unique way to draw children to their bookmobile; they showed movies on it. While using a bookmobile to carry films was nothing new, Fitchburg was the first town to use the bookmobile as a screen. The 16mm films were actually projected from inside the bookmobile, onto a Polacoat lenscreen inserted into the rear window. This caused problems with the images being reversed, as if watching the film’s reflection in a mirror. Hence, a piece of cardboard was put over the screen during the opening credits, to avoid the confusion of backward letters popping up before the film. Otherwise, the reversal of the motion pictures wasn’t a problem, though the library avoided showing sports films, “As the youngsters would have readily spotted a player running, apparently, from home plate to third base.” The bookmobile regularly stopped at playgrounds around the city with three or four films in tow, ready to make on-the-spot decisions depending on what audience gathered that particular afternoon.


Children watch the Fitchburg Public Library’s screening of Make Way for Ducklings.

Hyatt, Hannah. “A Unique Use of the Bookmobile.” Wilson Library Bulletin, 570-571. Volume 32, No. 8, April  1958.

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The Traveling Libraries of Lutie Stearns

Lutie Stearns was a founding member of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, started in 1895. In 1896, she worked with local philanthropist Senator James Stout to establish 16 traveling libraries in Dunn County, each town getting a case of about 30 books. Each community had to establish a group of people to oversee the collection and pick a volunteer to manage it daily. This would be the basic blueprint for the traveling libraries Stearns would form in the future.


Ready to Go! The first batch of traveling libraries await shipment in Stout, WI.  The two on top are open for display. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

In 1897 Wisconsin’s Legislature granted the WFLC an additional $4,000, with Lutie Stearns as a full time employee. As the Commission’s official Organizer of Traveling Libraries, she rode all over the state, by carriage or horse-drawn sleigh, each time her mission the same:  to convince the town’s citizens to invest in a library. The basic setup called for the township to put up $50 for the upkeep of $1,000 worth of books from the WFLC. The boxes typically numbered 100 volumes, kept in a double-doored case with a shelf. The titles were an eclectic mix of children’s and adult book, fiction and nonfiction, and often written in a diversity of Germanic and Scandinavian languages. Robinson Crusoe and Hans Brinker were among the books for children; Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare entertained adults. Also included were cookbooks (The Boston Cookbook), history (Oman’s History of Greece;  Higgins’ English History for Americans), and books on farming (First Principles of Agriculture). Often, magazines were included that didn’t need to be returned (St. Nicolas Magazine). Along with the books came a list of simple rules and borrower cards for keeping track of titles. The town had to have a board that would oversee the collection, meaning they were charged with finding a suitable location and volunteers to manage the books. Above all else, the books had to be loaned out for free.


One of Stearns’ free libraries, in the back of a post office. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The portable library’s location could be basically anywhere that had a countertop, including post offices, creameries, general stores, and private homes.  The WFLC also organized book cases for orphanages, tuberculosis sanatoria, and lumber camps. The Commission typically switched out the books every few months. Eventually Stearns earned the nick-name the “Johnny Appleseed of traveling libraries” and for good reason; in nearly 20 years she established over 1,400 such libraries in Wisconsin. Later, she helped dozens of Wisconsin communities apply for grants from the Carnegie Foundation to establish permanent libraries, many of which are still standing.


This map, which appeared in a turn-of-the-century pamphlet titled Free Traveling Libraries in Wisconsin, is a testament to Lutie Stearns’ legacy. Each dot represents a community she convinced to invest in a traveling library.

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The Unique Bookmobiles of the 1930s


The bookmobile of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, circa 1937. Note the snow chains. Courtesy of the Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island, RG10/P-4.

The first publication to describe bookmobile services was a 1937 study called simply Book Automobiles, complied by the American Library Association. Many of the “bookmobiles” described therein stretched the definition of the term.  At the time no company manufactured bookmobiles en masse, forcing libraries to reconfigure existing cars. These unique vehicles included:

Vanderburg County, IN-  A Ford Roadster with a box in the back that held 150 books and a shelf that folded down for a charging desk.

Haines Falls, NY – Rented a mail truck by the hour, attaching bookshelves in the back.

Ventrua, CA – used a Ford v8 pickup, building shelves on the back.

Pleasantville, NY – Installed shelves in the rumble seat of a Chevy coupe. (“They find record keeping difficult in a small car.”)

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada – Used a Chevy Coupe with a shelving unit for about 400 books that could be displayed out of the trunk. A heavier car was deemed impractical for the icy roads.

St. Albans, VT- Removed the rear seat of a Chevy coach and lined the walls with books shelves. (“One or two persons at a time may have access to the shelves by tipping the front seat forward.”)

Haverhill, Mass- Rented a passenger bus on a weekly basis, which included the driver. The bus company removed the seats and put in sloping wall shelves and a desk. It was set up so the equipment could easily be removed and converted back into a bus.  Starting in 1932, the “book bus” went out every Wednesday and carried about 600 volumes. Patrons had the novel option of phoning the main library with requests to be brought out next time.



Front and side views of the “book bus” of Haverhill, Mass.

Courtesy of the Trustees of the Haverhill Public Library.

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Driving Past Jim Crow; The Bookmobile of Delta Sigma Theta


The bookmobile of Delta Sigma Theta, circa 1956.

If African-Americans had any library service in the Jim Crow South, it was either in a
separate reading room at the library, or more often, at a completely separate
branch. These “colored” libraries inevitably were inferior, underfunded and
often given books the white libraries no longer wanted. African-Americans
frequently took it upon themselves to organize libraries of their own, the
stacks often housed in schools and churches. Blacks using segregated services
were the lucky ones; a 1954 study revealed two thirds of southern
African-Americans had no access to libraries at all.

The most ambitious book program to overcome racial barriers was the National Library Project organized by the black sorority Delta Sigma Theta, launched in 1945. Each
Delta chapter purchased 10 books at $2.50 a piece, with the Grand Chapter paying
for the portable book baskets that would be taken to the various deposit stations. Franklin County, North Carolina was the first site of these unique traveling libraries. Each school in the county was allowed one book basket, a teacher at each school appointed to look after the collection. The sorority continued to build other traveling libraries, mostly in western Georgia where the library needs of African-Americans were most underserved. The program inspired the citizens of Louisburg (in Franklin County) to build what would eventually be called the Delta Sigma Theta Public Library , to which the sorority donated $500. The national chapter also purchased a bookmobile, stocked with $3,000 worth of books, to serve African-Americans in Carroll County, Georgia, driven by librarian Leroy Childs.

In Search of Sisterhood; Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement. Giddings, Paula. William Morrow and Company Inc., New York. 1988.

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The Armed Services Editions of The Council on Books in Wartime



Armed Services Editions were designed to be cheap, portable and expendable.

The Council on Books in Wartime was an ad-hoc group of publishers, librarians and booksellers whose purpose was promoting the use of books in the war effort. Headed by W. Warder Norton of W.W. Norton and Company, this team would organize one of the largest book give-aways in history. Rather than go through the cost of procuring already existing books, the C.B.W. decided it would be cheaper in the long run to print their own titles. After securing the rights from publishers and making arrangements with printers, The Council organized the printing of a staggering 123 million copies of 1,322 titles. To keep costs down, the small, horizontal books –which were roughly the size of index cards- were printed two at a time on presses used for magazines. The books ranged from the classics (Twain, Poe) to the then-contemporary (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a novelization of the Adventures of Superman), along with plenty of nonfiction.  Armed Services Editions, or “Council Books” as they were sometimes called, didn’t need to be returned. Rather, they were distributed to the men like so many cigarettes and K rations.

The impact of the ASE’s can’t be overstated. Millions of soldiers in the most elusive bracket for booksellers, men from 18 to 35, were turned onto reading as the only form of entertainment. Upon returning home, many if not most continued to make reading a part of their daily lives, leading to a post-war explosion of paperbacks. From that decade on, reading books in this cheaper format became increasingly common.


A wounded soldier relaxes with an A.S.E. Photograph original property of the Army Pictorial Center.

“Books in Action; The Armed Services Editions.” Coyle, John Y. ed. Center for the Book, Library of Congress. Washington D.C., 1984.

Books as Weapons; Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets in the Era of World War Two.” Hench, John B. Cornell University Press, Ithaca. 2010

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Over There: Portable Libraries of World War One


American soldiers enjoy a portable library brought by truck to Kelly Field, just outside San Antonio.

In 1916 An American traveler reported that when his train pulled up to stop for
water on the Mexican border, American soldiers approached the passengers and
begged for reading material. Books, magazines, anything.  “The soldiers had little to do and absolutely nothing to read.” Understanding the ability of books to maintain sanity,
the American Library Association formed a War Service Committee shortly after
the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917.  Working with other non-profit organizations,
including the YMCA and The American Red Cross, the ALA managed to get 6 million
books for the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force. These were procured through a combination of book drives and using donated funds. When feasible, the books were put in camp libraries, often erected by the Y.M.C.A. Otherwise, the books were brought to soldiers by truck.


American soldiers relax in a Y.M.C.A. camp library.

“Library Program for U.S. Army: 1917-18 and 1940-41.” Larson, Cedric. Wilson Library Bulletin, Jan. 1941, Vol. 15 #5. Pgs 362-366.

“’We Want Books’” by Marie D. Loizeaux. Wilson Library
Bulletin, Vol. 16, #5.

Images from the Library of Congress Digital Collection.

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