The Bookmobile that Became a Bookstore; Honolulu, Hawaii

Most bookmobiles are slated for the junkyard after they’ve served their purpose, but a few lucky ones get a unique second life.  Case in point is Bill’s Bookmobile in Honolulu. For seven years, the bookmobile seemed to be destined to meet the fate of other abandoned vehicles, decaying as it was in storage and being cannibalized for spare parts. But in 2006, the Friends of the Library of Hawaii purchased and renovated the vehicle into a permanent bookstore that is now parked in Honolulu. Over half of the $11,000 renovation was paid for by the estate of Bill Harper, an avid reader and library lover. The store opened to great fanfare in 2007, with an opening ceremony that included a lion dance and music from the Royal Hawaiian Band. The bookmobile can carry up to 3,000 books and all of the proceeds support the 50 public libraries of Hawaii.

Bills Bookmobile

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The First Hybrids


Rochester, Minnesota’s hybrid. Courtesy of the Rochester Public Library.

In February 2012, Mendocino County, CA, launched America’s first hybrid bookmobile. Funding came from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and a grant from Air Quality Management. It is a Freightliner diesel/electric vehicle that recharges at each stop and has 50% more the efficiency of the bookmobile it replaced. “Even using power for a half-hour, it only takes a few minutes to recharge,” explained driver Dave Frick. It also comes equipped with solar panels that charge the battery running the air-conditioning and electricity. The exterior was painted by local artist James Sibbet. As another form of recycling, it carries a box of donated books for patrons to pick from.
A few months later, Rochester, MN followed with a bookmobile powered by a hybrid drive train and generator. Other environmentally-friendly innovations include solar panels, LED lights and recycled rubber floors. It’s estimated that these green technologies save the library $3,000 in operating costs each year.


Mendocino County’s hybrid bookmobile, the first in the country. Courtesy of the Mendocino County Public Library.

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The Classroom on Wheels

In 2012, The Toledo-Lucas County Public Library of Ohio launched its own Cybermobile, dubbed the “Classroom on Wheels.” While not a bookmobile per se, it is unique among library vehicles in that its sole purpose is bringing digital instruction to patrons. Equipped with 12 computers and a smartboard, the Cybermobile has provided patrons with basic computer classes, resume writing workshops, and GED courses, among other services. For preschoolers it hosts “Tiny Tech”,  or early digital literacy programs. TLCPL has also partnered with other organizations, such as Mercy College’s School of Nursing, to provide patrons with free health workshops and children’s vision and hearing screenings.


Interior of the “Classroom on Wheels”.

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The Boatmobile of Boca Grande, Florida


The Papyrus II, with Roger and Louise Amory on board.

From 1954 to 1972, The Johann Fust Public Library of Boca Grande, FL, used a yacht to bring books to islands in the surrounding area . The boat went to such islands as Bokeelia, Useppa, Mondongo, Sea Grape Island, Cabbage Key, and Captiva. The first, Papyrus, ran for four years before being replaced by the Papyrus II. Librarian Pansy Cost organized the effort. The boats were piloted by Capt. Adelbert “Del” Johnson or by the husband and wife team of Roger and Louise Amory. In 1972, the board of the Johann Fust Public Library voted to sell the unique craft.


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The Branchmobile of Mansfield, Ohio


The branchmobile of Mansfield, OH, circa 1980. Courtesy, the Sherman Room Collection, Mansfield/Richland County Public Library.


In the 60’s and 70’s it became increasingly common to park book trailers at certain locations for days at a time, turning the bookmobile into a portable library branch, or “branchmobile.” This was due to Gerstenslager and other companies making large trailers specifically for the purpose of hauling library books. The energy crisis of the 1970s also compelled libraries to come up with ways of using less gas. The branchmobile of the Mansfield, Ohio Public Library began serving outlying areas in the late 50s and was discontinued in 1989. An 80s expansion of the library branch system largely made the unit obsolete.

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The Floating Library of Southeast Alaska


A couple of Alaskan children walk the plank from the Anna Jackman.

In 1972 Presbyterian missioners Zelma and Lawrence Doig used their craft, the M.V. Anna Jackman, to deliver library books to the roughly 8,000 people living in southeastern Alaska’s remote coves and bays. Zelma Doig, a former librarian, worked at the behest of the Alaska State Library, which was looking for new ways to promote its services. The boat carried about 400 books, along with some cassettes and battery-operated tape-players for the sake of those without reliable electricity. The boat also delivered books patrons had requested through Alaska State Library’s books-by-mail program.  The floating library primarily visited isolated logging and fishing towns, including Hanus Bay, Five Finger Lighthouse, and Meyer’s Chuck.

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Kenosha and the Last of the Big Rigs


Kenosha’s “RIG”, seen here when just-purchased in 1987, ran until 2004 and represented the end of an era. Photo, Kenosha News.

In the 60s and 70s, it wasn’t uncommon for a bookmobile to be a 40-foot-long, 18-wheeler tractor-trailer. Increased regulations in the 80s meant that such vehicles could only be driven by a licensed trucker, putting the era of these massive libraries-on-wheels to an end. Kenosha Pubic Library’s “RIG” – an acronym for Reading-is-Great, the nickname a result from a city-wide contest- was the last of the tractor-trailers. KPL purchased the AMC truck and Great Dane trailer for $92,000 in 1987 (the AMC was later replaced by an International Harvester). The 40-foot trailer was the last bookmobile in the country to be pulled by a semi. It could carry up to 10,000 items and was powered by a propane generator. KPL replaced the 18-wheeler with a bus in 2004, which carried three laptops and an awning.


Kenosha’s new bookmobile, 2004. Photo, Kenosha News.

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