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

Biblioteca Ambulante Jul 1996

“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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The Wisconsin Free Library Commission and Books-by-mail

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“Do You Want a Book?” A pamphlet published by the WFLC explains how residents can receive books by parcel post. 

On January 1st, 1913, Congress approved parcel post, meaning that
packages could be sent via US Mail anywhere in the U.S. In 1914 the Wisconsin Free Library Commission took advantage of the new law to send materials by mail. The books came from the combined libraries of the WFLC, the State Historical Society Library, the University of Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Academy of Arts and Sciences.  The grand total of books came out to over 442,000 volumes. Wisconsin residents only had to mail a simple letter to the WFLC, clearly stating titles, authors, or subject matter. Ben Logan wrote in his memoir The Land Remembers; “Each year, just before Christmas, she (mother) sent off a letter to the State Lending Library, asking them to send us about thirty books for three adults and four boys…Then someone in the library in far off Madison would read the letter and would, we like to think, close their eyes, see us, and decide what books to send.”

Ben Logan. The Land Remembers; The Story of a Farm and its People. (Minnetonka, MI, Northword Press, 1999. 254, 263)

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A boy receives a book by parcel post

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America’s 2nd Bookmobile

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Plainfield’s “Auto-Book-Wagon,” 1916.

Courtesy of the Indiana Room; Plainfield-Guilford Township Public Library.

Plainfield, Indiana, is most likely the sight of America’s second bookmobile. In 1909 Plainfield librarian Mayme C. Snipes set up a series of deposit stations in the surrounding area, boxes of books mostly kept in schools. In her 1915 annual report she voiced concern that while the deposit station network helped, only 25 percent of rural patrons had access to books. To solve this gap, she advocated using the new technology of automobiles. The board agreed, and purchased a Ford chassis in 1916. A local wagon maker built the body, with shelves on both sides and a runway in the middle for storing magazines, art prints, and extra books. The entire vehicle and retrofitting cost $608.

The Auto-Book-Wagon hit the road in the summer of 1916. The truck drew mixed reactions at first, encountering the same problem of other early bookmobiles in people not understanding the concept. The Ford was often mistaken for an ambulance, medicine wagon, sometimes a popcorn truck. But ultimately the rural patrons came to look forward to the Auto-Book-Wagon’s trips. The Wagon was able to reach each registered family every five to six weeks, letting each farmhouse take as much time as they needed.

The Auto-Book-Wagon was retired in January, 1924

Miller, Ida Mae. “Plainfield’s Auto-Book-Wagon.” Focus on Indiana Libraries, vol. 23, 1969. Pgs. 26-31.

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Dayton, Ohio: The Bookmobile Goes To The City

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The Dayton-Montgomery County Library book truck, 1924. The shelves could easily be removed and strapped to the floor for travel. Courtesy of the Dayton Metro Library.

The bookmobile of the Dayton-Montgomery County Library was the first to serve a major metropolitan area, starting in October of 1923. The library spent $687 on a Ford One truck that was then outfitted with four bookshelves on each side. The truck carried 600 books and 100 magazines, everything held in place with canvas straps that “stretched across the front and buttoned on carriage curtain buttons.” The staff of the book wagon would ultimately consist of three. Two were pages trained in driving the truck, checking out books and “holding the discipline”; the third was a librarian. Her role was to explain the new service to prospective customers, provide reader’s advisory, and sometimes take patron’s reference questions back to the main library. Because of the limited selection, patrons were allowed only two books and one magazine per card. Nonetheless, the book wagon circulated over 4,000 books in its first six weeks, along with registering over 900 new library users.

Phillip, John.
“An Overview of the History of Bookmobile Service in Ohio: A Mirror of the National Scene.” Bookmobiles and Outreach Services Vo. 7 no.1 2004 pg. 29-36.

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