Bookmobiles as Outreach Tools Part 1: Why Bookmobiles? A Little History

Introduction

Bookmobiles and mobile service stations are an important component of outreach programs in many library systems.  While the demand for traveling and mobile collections of books has waxed and waned since the late 19th century, bookmobiles have maintained a steady presence since their introduction in the early 20th century. Today’s libraries seek to build on the success of the bookmobile model by using these libraries-on-wheels to reach marginalized populations with an ever expanding array of library materials and services.

The Why of Bookmobiles: A Little History

Bookmobiles have their origins in the traveling library movement of the late 19th – early 20th centuries. While Thomas Bray first conceived of the idea in 17th century England, the traveling library movement in the United States began when Melvil Dewey first circulated a traveling library in New York state in 1893 (Passet, 1991). This was the era of the great reform movements, when clubs, many composed of women, sought to cure society’s ills through education and self-improvement, often with a decidedly moralistic agenda. It was felt by these reformers that literacy had the power to, “guarantee social stability and adherence to cherished social and political norms,” (Passet, 1991, p. 101) and “preserve traditional values while embracing progress” (Passet, 1991 p. 101). Lack of public libraries in many communities threatened to derail this progress however, and thus the impetus for the traveling library was born.

The purpose of both the traveling library and the bookmobile has since their inception been to reach individuals without ready access to a nearby public library, or who cannot otherwise access a library due to circumstances such as health, incarceration, lack of transport, and so on (Cummings, 2009). In the traveling library model, crates of books would be shipped to a certain location, displayed in an accessible area like the post office or perhaps an individual’s home, and a local citizen would act as a de facto “librarian” taking charge of the books and their circulation (Cummings, 2009). Many rural communities were provided with reading material they otherwise would not have had access to in this way, but concerns over funding, particularly at the state level, led to the eventual demise of the system (Cummings, 2009). The model of the traveling library was no more, supplanted by that of the bookmobile.

Once the first bookmobile, a horse drawn conveyance dreamt up by librarian Mary Titcomb and known as the Library Wagon, hit the streets of Maryland in 1905 its advantages over the traveling library model soon became apparent (Clements, 2008). A bookmobile, “could move books to people in multiple locations on a single trip” (Cummings, 2009). Whereas traveling libraries set up shop in a specific town, bookmobiles came directly to patrons, and were equipped with knowledgeable and friendly library staff to provide assistance (Cummings, 2009). Bookmobiles particularly proliferated following WWII, and statewide bookmobile programs were begun in the 1950s in direct response to the Cold War (Cummings, 2009). In much the same way that the early reformers thought traveling libraries could produce moral, productive citizens, lawmakers came to believe that bookmobiles could produce democratic citizens united in the fight against Communism. The state librarian of Texas stated that, “an informed, enlightened, intelligent, and alert America is really essential to our defense and freedom. Knowledge through books can aid materially in preserving such freedom” (Cummings, 2009). To that end, the Library Services Act of 1956 was passed to fund library extension activities in rural areas (Cummings, 2009). However, with the advent of the Library Services and Construction Act of 1964, which channeled federal funding into library development and construction in urban areas, statewide bookmobile programs fell by the wayside and were instead incorporated into local library systems as outreach tools, which is the model we are familiar with today (Cummings, 2009).

Image Source: Garber, C. (n.d.) American Bookmobiles; Connections and Conflict an Interview with Derek Attig. The Ultimate History Project. Retrieved from http://www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/bookmobiles-racial-and-cultural-battlegrounds.html

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