H.W. Wilson Introduces the Bookmobile to America

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H.W. Wilson’s bookmobile. The names of the six companies that sponsored its trip across America are written on the side. Most of these organizations still exist.

The first generation of bookmobiles that ran  during The Great War and through the 1920s typically were referred to as “book wagons,” “book-trucks,” “book vans” and sometimes the exotic “Parnassus-on-wheels”. The reason bookmobile became the dominate phrase in America instead of, say, the British term mobile library, may be due to a contest launched be the H.W. Wilson Company. H.W. Wilson was a publisher of reference books that still operates. Among its many publications was the Wilson Bulletin, a journal for librarians and others in the research business. In 1928 Wilson announced a contest to name a “quite extraordinary book-truck.” The vehicle would tour the entire U.S., one library at a time, and display books, library equipment, and reference services. The November 1928 issue of Wilson Bulletin encouraged readers to send suggestions for the name of this unique vehicle, with a prize of $25 going to the winner.

The winning name was announced in the December issue. Bookmobile had been suggested by three librarians living far apart, suggesting the term had already been circulating nationwide (the prize was increased sightly and split three ways; each winner got $10). Wilson’s traveling exhibit set off in January of 1929, with BOOKMOBILE emblazoned on the blue G.M.C. truck. Written below were the names of the six companies or organizations sponsoring the trip, most of which still exist today; the American Booksellers Association; R.R. Bowker Company; Gaylord Brothers; H.R. Hunting Company; National Association of Book Publishers; Reader’s Digest; and the H.W. Wilson Company.

The journey started at Rutger’s University in the winter of 1929, attracting attention everywhere it went. While the purpose of the trip was to advertise the services of the sponsors, its biggest success was the promotion of the bookmobile concept. Designs and sketches of the truck were given freely to any who asked. Librarians walked away from the 20th-century marvel wondering how they could get a similar service for their own patrons.

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H.W. Wilson’s bookmobile trip wasn’t without hazard.

1929 America was not yet a place where a cross-county road trip was easily-made.  On at least two occasions the truck had to be pulled out of mud, once by a team of horses. Nonetheless, the traveling library crew made it a point to visit as many libraries in each locale as possible, be they public, academic or in a high school. The occasional bookstore also got a visit. Wilson and its sponsoers did more than any other organization so far to promote the concept of a library on wheels. They also helped ensure that the term bookmobile would enter the American lexicon.

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