The Strange Case of the Bookmobile That Went to Moscow

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The Delmar bookmobile arrives in the U.S.S.R. Courtesy of the Bethlehem Spotlight.

Residents of the upstate New York town of Delmar were flattered when they learned that their newly-acquired bookmobile would first be on display in Sokol’niki Park, Moscow, as part of the American National Exhibition of 1959. Sponsored by the US Government, the cultural fair was meant to show off the American way of life to Soviet citizens (The Soviet Union sponsored a similar event in New York City earlier that year). Among the merchandise showcased were appliances, cars, the latest fashions, a hair salon, art, IBM’s RAMAC computer that could answer 4,000 pre-programmed questions- and one bookmobile.

The bookmobile was a huge draw, with thousands of Soviet citizens lining up to walk through the narrow aisle of the vehicle. Initially it was stocked with 4,000 volumes. Visitors were free to browse as many of the titles as they liked, and if one should walk away with a paperback or two, the American staff mostly looked the other way. But the shelves grew increasingly bare. Later visitors were surprised and disappointed at the scarcity of literature.  The moving library’s collection was reduced to 1,000 titles before the American officials decided to shut it down.

Hearing this, New York lawyer and later Kennedy aide John C. Bullitt organized a book drive and had thousands of titles airlifted to Moscow. The exhibit reopened with a Soviet policeman keeping a sharp watch over the tourists. It would stay open for the duration of the fair.

The titles that had been stolen varied in genre.  Classics were a huge draw, as were books on American and Western art. Also popular were paperbacks, especially mysteries, westerns, romances and science fiction. A book called Lenin on the Trade Unions by Thomas Hammond elicited little interest.

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Soviet citizens line up outside the bookmobile under the watchful eye of a policeman. Courtesy of the Bethlehem Spotlight.

Citations:

Bookmobile Reopens in Moscow: Throngs Pore Over Stock Replenished by an Airlift. By Osgood Caruthers. Special to The New York Times. New York Times  [New York, N.Y] 28 Aug 1959: 4.

U. S. Closes Bookmobile at Fair After Many Volumes Disappear: A Major Attraction in Moscow Ends — Crowds Showed Disappointment at Meagerness of the Display By Osgood Caruthers. Special to The New York Times. New York Times [New York, N.Y] 19 Aug 1959: 5.

BOOKS AIRLIFTED TO MOSCOW FAIR: HASTY VOLUNTEER EFFORT HERE TO HELP REOPEN EXHIBIT BOOKS AIRLIFTED TO MOSCOW FAIR. By Will Lissner. New York Times  [New York, N.Y] 22 Aug 1959: 1.

At the Fair, Fascinated Russians Flock to U.S. Exhibits. Life Magazine, Aug. 10, 1959, pgs.28-35.

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