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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The Last Gerstesnlager?

It seems I mispoke when I said that Waukegan Public Library retired the last still-operating Gerstenslager in 2005 to aid Katrina victims. In fact, they have another that is still running. The Dinomobile is a 1973 Gerstenslager that serves exclusively elementary schools.  According to Joseph Kalinowski, who has been driving her for the past 35 years, it has never needed a major part. This may make it the last Gerstenslager still running. If anybody knows of another, please let me know!


The last of the Gerstenslagers?

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Bringing Truth to the Heathen; the Bookmobiles of the John Birch Society


The John Birch Society was founded by millionaire candy magnate Robert Welch in 1958. The sole purpose of this group was to stop the spread of Communism, both abroad and especially at home in the United States. “Our own country has suffered from as much turpitude and treason as would ordinarily require a generation to put together,” the very serious Welch explained in the introduction to the fourth printing of the Blue Book of the John Birch Society. “You have only a few more years before the country in which you live will become four separate provinces in a world-wide Communist dominion ruled by police-state methods from the Kremlin.” While the JBS took on a bellicose tone, its weapons of choice were words, and lots of ‘em. The Society’s printing outfit, Western Islands, cranked out thousands of books, pamphlets, and periodicals. These were to be distributed by loyal “Birchers”, as the organization’s members called themselves. In the Blue Book chapter titled “And So, Let’s Act…” Welch called for the creation of hundreds of reading rooms across the country. These would be rental libraries similar to their public counterparts, the difference being that they would be stocked solely with literature that told the truth about the Communist threat. They also sold books and always had the latest copies of American Opinion, the Society’s official newsletter. Indeed, these special libraries were often called “American Opinion” libraries. The lending rules were to be strict, “so as to avoid too much loss through Communist sabotage.”

It’s estimated that in their peak years of the mid 60s, about 350 American Opinion libraries existed. Welch also called for his right-wing publications to be distributed via a network of doctors and dentists waiting rooms, along with barber shops, college libraries, and even frat houses.

Another method of distribution was a special fleet of roughly a dozen bookmobiles, mostly beige Volkswagen buses that typically popped up at political rallies, esp. those attended by conservatives mostly likely to hear the call. The American Opinion bookmobiles sold the latest copies of the periodical after which they were named, along with Society-approved books, and had samples of other publications that could be ordered from the JBS. One of these vans was frequently parked in the Wall Street area, its owner having the proper peddler’s license so he could bring “Truth to the Heathen.”

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Happy National Bookmobile Day!

Happy National Bookmobile Day everyone!

In celebration, check out this awesome set of slides put together by

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The First Mobile Library? Mealsgate, England


John Sanderson, the great-grandfather of bookmobile drivers everywhere. Many thanks to for posting this image. 

One of the first roving library systems was the “Permabulating Library” set up in a clique of villages near Carlisle, Great Britain, in 1851. The driving force behind it was local philanthropist George Moore. Working with Richard Abbatt and a J. P. Foster, the men arranged for a series of deposit stations to be set up in nine villages of northwest England; Ireby, Torpenhow, Bothel, Mealsgate, Crookdale, Bolton, Low Houses, Boltongate, Sandale and Uldale. Boxes of books were rotated between the villages, a volunteer librarian appointed at each station. Subscribers paid a penny a month or a shilling a year. The collection was switched out every six weeks by a messenger who wheeled the cases on foot. The messenger, John Sanderson, was a “noted walker”, reportedly having once strolled 150 miles in 48 hours. The libraries were a big success, with the books almost always out, and “the country people were thus induced to read good books.”

An article from the 1857 publication The British Workman described the Perambulating Library thus:

“We have been much interested by hearing from a gentleman who recently travelled in Cumberland, of a happy looking old man who was wheeling along the high road a novel looking burden. On enquiry, it proved to be the Perambulating Library ; the large box containing a supply of books which the messenger was taking from Mealsgate to Bolton New Houses. On depositing his burden, he would then have to take the books which had been in use at Bolton New Houses forward to another village, and so on for a circle of eight villages, comprising in addition to the above.”

George Moore, Merchant and Philanthropist by Samuel Smiles. London, New York, G. Routledge and Sons, 1878. Pages 154-155

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Plainfield’s Bootstrap Bookmobile

BootStrapperExteriror In the early 70s until the early 80s, the public library of Plainfield, IN, used a lunch truck to deliver books to rural patrons. Finding that many children in the area couldn’t get to the library but without funds to purchase a bookmobile, then director Mary McMillian hit on the idea of using the same truck the school district used to deliver prepared meals. The same taxes paid for the truck after all, and it merely sat idle all summer anyway. Local postman Clark Kellum helped planned the routes, since he was knowledgeable about where children tended to gather. Ultimately the “Bootstrap” as the quasi-bookmobile was named, would deliver 5,000 books every summer. It ran an average of two days a week for nine weeks, on routes that totaled 500 miles. In addition to loaning books, the Bootstrap Bookmobile also held story times and threw an-end-of-summer party (which children could attend on the condition they returned the books they had been allowed to keep for nine weeks). One article described a typical stop as being attended by “barefoot children, friendly dogs, and mothers with their hair in curlers and infants in their arms.” The service was stopped in the mid-80s, the reason given that air-conditioning kept the kids inside. Boot StrapperInterior The Bootstrap Bookmobile was  a simple machine that the children loved.

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The Navajo Bookmobiles of Arizona

The bookmobile takes part in the All Indian World’s Fair and Rodeo Parade, September 1971.  Donald Redbird, a Kiowa, is the driver.

The bookmobile takes part in the All Indian World’s Fair and Rodeo Parade, September 1971. Donald Redbird, a Kiowa, is the driver.

The Bookmobile Visits the Reservation; Flagstaff, Arizona

The Four Corners Mobile Library Project began in 1970 with one bookmobile that served the Navajo and Hopi reservations. A second vehicle was added in 1972. The bookmobiles were sponsored by the Arizona State Library Extension Service, the Four Corners Regional Commission, and a grant from the Library Services and Construction Act. The bookmobiles operated out of offices in Flagstaff and Winslow. Winslow also housed a teletype that was used to locate materials not available locally. Both whites and members of the Navajo and Hopi nations staffed the vehicles, the latter especially crucial because of their ability to speak the native languages. Storytimes were sometimes done in both English and Navajo.

The two bookmobiles served the counties of Apache, Navajo, Coconino and Yavapai. Especially important were the stops in Navajo and Apache counties, since neither had any functioning libraries at the time. While serving Indian populations was the primary goal, the bookmobiles stopped at a variety of isolated pockets in northern Arizona. The trucks visited not only Indian reservations, colleges, and boarding schools, but also lonely work sites such as trading posts, post offices, public health stations, the refineries of El Paso Natural Gas and mines of Peabody Coal, among other places. The names of the stops reflect their uniqueness; Red Mesa, Twin Arrows, Sunset Crater, Cliff Dwellers, Kayenta Trading Post, Navajo National Monument, Blue Ride Ranger Station, Coal Mine Mesa, etc. At some of the stops, such as ranger stations, colleges and chapter houses, the vehicles routinely dropped of a deposit collection. The bookmobiles also regularly brought picture books to over two dozen head start classes. By 1972, the two bookmobiles had a combined total of 85 stops, some of them accessible only by dirt road.

Books about Native Americans were in high demand, especially those dealing with history, folklore, contemporary issues, and native arts and crafts. There was also high demand for the practical, such as books on GED preparation, basic math and English improvement, carpentry, livestock skills, and the “always present demand for dictionaries.” During the summer, the bookmobile often coordinated with local cultural events such as art fairs and parades. That the schools were closed over the summer didn’t make the bookmobiles any less busy. Children often checked out books for their parents.


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The Bookmobile That Became a Bookstore, Part Two; Austin, TX

10407702_959825464031073_2485403808512583042_n Fifth Dimension Books, the bookstore on wheels. Honolulu is not the only place to find a bookmobile/bookstore. Spouses Patrick and Sukyi McMahon recently realized their dream of owning their own bookshop by purchasing a former bookmobile that had served for 25 years. The 1987 vehicle will hit certain spots in Austin on a routine basis. Other stops will be more spontaneous, so customers are encouraged to follow 5th Dimension on social media. The moving store is capable of carrying 5,000 books and specializes in science fiction and fantasy. They stock the truck by drawing on the 100,000-book collection they purchased from the estate of the late Dr. John N. Marx, a well-known collector of science fiction works. They also carry out-of-print T Shirts, Go Local Austin loyalty cards, and other unique items for this most unique of bookstores. 1977410_967060983307521_7035825298736287575_n10730879_967061076640845_2049007285574529197_n Interior shots

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