The Book Boats of Lake Chelan, Washington

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Jo Pardee oversees the books being loaded by crane onto a ship.

In 1951 Jo Pardee, head librarian of the Chelan County Library in Washington
State, managed to secure funds to bring books to small towns located on Lake
Chelan, deep in the mountains. Jo loaded her station wagon with crates of books
and drove to the dock at 25 Mile Creek. The books traveled by boat up the
narrow lake and were redistributed in local towns. In Lucerne, the books were unloaded by crane before being driven by bus to the mountain mining town of Holden.

 

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The Bookmobile That Became a Real Library; Collinsville, Pennsylvania

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The Collinsville Community Library was bookmobile permanently parked in a discount center parking lot. Courtesy, Collinsville Library.

On rare occasions, a bookmobile turns into a real library. When York County, PN.,  was appropriated a meager $40,000 to bring library services to two communities, Collinsville librarian Evelyn Minick paid $350 for a rusted-out bookmobile. Local artist Lillian Hill refurbished it and later became its volunteer librarian. In October of 1980,  stocked with 2,500 paperbacks, records and magazines, the converted bookmobile opened its two doors for the first time, in a discount center parking lot. There it sat, open 40 hours a week, staffed by a combination of volunteers and paid staff. It had two solar panels in the back and was dubbed the “solar library” (“When the sun shines, they are more than adequate as a heating source.” ) Otherwise, a propane heater kept the  mini-library warm.

In 1982 the Solar Library was replaced by a trailer. Seven years later the Philadelphia Electric Company donated a couple of unused trailers to expand the library again. To this day the library is three trailers rolled into one structure.

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The Outpost Libraries of West Virginia

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An newly-inserted outpost library in West Virginia.

Due to the energy crisis of the 70s, it became a common practice for bookmobiles to hit fewer stops for longer periods of time. Sometimes, these bookmobiles would be parked all day at the same spot, making the vehicle more of a traveling library branch, or “branchmobile.”

The branchmobile concept was taken to an extreme in West Virginia. This mountainous state had long used bookmobiles to reach isolated areas, but driving large trucks on the icy roads was dangerous and difficult. Starting in 1973, the state began to use instant libraries, also known as “outpost libraries.” The library was a narrow house that could be pulled by a tractor trailer, then left in one place indefinitely. After some basic construction, a town could then instantly have a library branch. These outpost libraries could carry about 8,000 books. Later, the state used “modular libraries”, which were larger, able to hold approximately 15,000 volumes. There were 65 of these portable buildings by 1986 operating in the backwoods of West Virginia.

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Patrons enjoy an outpost library.

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El Numero Cinco and La Biblioteca Ambulante: Taking Books to Migrants

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“La Biblioteca Ambulante”. Courtesy of the Fresno County Free Library.

Starting in 1969, the Denver Public Library began to reach out to the local Spanish-speaking population, a group that had not been using their services, by means of a bookmobile. The fifth truck to join the fleet (hence the name “El Numero Cinco”) was launched in June of 1969. The stops were in five city parks. The staff set up folding chairs, tables and umbrellas at each stop. It carried books in Spanish and English, along with games, records, and art prints. Besides providing materials, the three bilingual staff also showed movies through the rear window (in the same style as that of the Fitchburg Public Library). There were art and guitar lessons as well.

Starting in 1968, the San Joaquin Valley Library System, in Fresno, CA, sent a bookmobile to serve the migrant workers who flocked to the area every year during grape-picking season. “La Biblioteca Ambulante” served 33 locations, primarily Mexican communities and migrant camps. Due to the unique population, a few adjustments were made. The staff were bilingual, the materials mostly in Spanish. Patrons could check out books after filling out a basic 3 x 5 card, no ID needed. There were neither fines nor overdue notices. Staff went door-to-door in communities, handing out flyers announcing the bookmobile’s arrival the day before. The Ambulante also maintained a series of deposit stations in branch libraries, Community Action and Head Start centers.  The Ambulante’s arrival was always announced with Herb Alpert’s Spanish Flea blaring from the speakers. In addition to books, the bookmobile provided records (a hit with teenagers) and showed movies, the most popular being Spanish-dubbed Disney films. Initially, the venture was funded with an LSCA (Library Services and Construction Act) grant, which ran out in 1975.  It then became property of the Fresno County Library System and, along with the bookmobile already owned by Fresno, continued to serve migrant camps. Further budget cuts reduced the number of people it could serve.

Stanislaus County, California’s bookmobile served migrant camps in the 70s and for a time, had a separate vehicle, the Green Bus, which was used solely to bring materials to migrant camps and housing. The Green Bus was killed by the tax-cutting measure Proposition 13, but the regular bookmobile still visited the camps.

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The Bookmobile That Went to Prison

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Jane Swenson with a couple of the BRCC inmates, 1990.

Starting in June of 1990, the Winding Rivers Library System based in La Crosse, WI, began visiting the Black River Correctional Center. The BRCC is a minimum security prison that at the time housed about 75 inmates, average age 19. Most of these young men were working on their GED or some other type of education. The prison library consisted mostly of outdated paperbacks and magazines. The bi-weekly bookmobile visits, then, were a hit with both the inmates and staff. While many bookmobiles bring materials to prisons, the one coming out of La Crosse was one of the few to allow inmates on board like any other group of patrons. Many of the grateful inmates, who commonly brought treats for the bookmobile staff, reported never having been in a library before. The books the inmates tended to select varied in genre. African-American authors were sought out (Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim), along with such topics as true crime and the occult, drawing, current music, body-building, dream interpretation, and parenting. Westerns, mysteries and romances were also popular topics. The prison’s teacher/librarian, Jane Swenson, reported being asked at least ten times a week, “When’s the bookmobile coming, Ms. Jane?”

Swenson, Jane. “When’s the bookmobile coming, Ms. Jane?” The Unabashed Librarian, number 96, pg. 17. “Bookmobile Service at the BRCC.” Ibid, pg. 18 Marcia Sarnoski.

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Bro-Dart’s prepackaged libraries

At the 1965 American Library Association conference the library supply company Br0-Dart, better known for making hand carts and shelving units, attempted to break into the bookmobile market with its prepackaged “Library on Wheels.” These were trailers that came already outfitted with books, furniture, and even a card catalog. Interior mirrors were meant to make the units seem larger. While they looked impressive, it is not clear that any of these units were actually used by public libraries.

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Bro-Dart’s prepackaged “Library on Wheels”, interior and exterior shots, 1965. Note the use of mirrors and card catalog. Both photos from Brown, “Bookmobiles and Bookmobile Service” by Eleanor Frances, Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1967.

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“Will Call Again.”

The Mitchell-Baker Regional Library bookmobile in Georgia operated a house-to-house service in the 1950s. In the event that a house was empty, it left behind a calling card, explaining when it would come by next. The picture on the card was a perfect likeness of the truck.

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Mitchell-Baker’s Business Card.

Wilson Library Bulletin, 1955.

 

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