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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Visiting the World’s Oldest Bookmobile

Last Monday was a great day for me, because I got to see what probably is the oldest continuously running bookmobile in the country, if not the world, the 1973 Gerstenslager of Waukegan Public Library. The driver, Joseph Kalinowski, has been driving the “Dinomobile” for 35 years. If his isn’t the longest still-running career of a bookmobile driver, it’s got to be close. The machine is so old as to have features you don’t see on many trucks anymore. These include roll up windows, an all-metal dash, wheels behind the driver. The truck also relies on hookups for power. The Dinomobile is a roving museum, a piece of history, the world’s last Gerstenslager!

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The Big Rig Bookmobile


John C. Gervase has always been passionate about trucks and helping humanity. For years he had used his skills as a trucker to assist organizations such as Feeding America and the Northern Illinois Food Bank. Research taught him there was a direct link between poverty and education, a gap he decided to fill. After procuring over 1,500 books through a bookdrive sponsored by his church, he needed a way to distribute them. He was able to purchase a trailer from St. Louis, which they generously sold him for half the asking price. Big Rig Books was born.

Big Rig Books now routinely stops at schools, handing out books for free. The work is taxing but rewarding. As John himself says on his site, “I look forward to each and every day with joy and pleasure.”

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The Books-to-People Project of Indianapolis


The Indianapolis’ Books-to-People project of the 1970s reflected that decade’s trend of using mobile libraries to help offset social inequality. The federally-funded project began in the summer of 1971 as means to bring paperbacks to the disadvantaged. Using a vehicle known as the Go-Go-Van, the colorful car’s rounds included Goodwill Centers, doctor’s offices, bars, beauty and barber shops, daycare centers, and just about any other place people might gather. The Marion County Jail was also served. The van gave out the books for free and encouraged people to return them to one of the library’s local branches. The staff also had plenty of helpful pamphlets on hand. On top of this, the Books-to-People left deposit collections whose contents were not meant to be removed. These boxes included titles such as Name Your Baby and the Home Medical Encyclopedia. Each collection included a sign that said: “Books-to-People/Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library/ Mini Reading for You/ Please Leave it Here for the next Person to enjoy.”

The project was discontinued in 1980, some say as another casualty of the energy crisis.

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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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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, printed thousands of books, pamphlets, and periodicals. These were to be distributed by loyal Birchers. 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.

It’s estimated that in their peak years of the mid 60s, about 350 American Opinion libraries existed. Welch also called for his 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 books, and had samples of other publications that could be ordered from the JBS.

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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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