October 8, 2015

Meet the Bookless Mobile

Smitty Miller and LiLi

Smitty Miller and LiLi

When Smitty Miller was hired at Canada’s Fraser Valley Regional Library last November for the newly created position of community development librarian, she had just one assignment: build a mobile initiative. “I, of course, said, ‘duh, build a book mobile,’” Miller told LJ.

She began researching the project, visiting King County to see their Library to Go, costing out Sprinter vans at dealerships, etc. There was only one problem: “you don’t have enough money or enough time,” the head of the Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services bottom-lined it for Miller at the end of a long conversation. Fraser Valley’s libraries and literacy grant from British Columbia would not even come close to covering the approximately $200,000 it would have cost to start a bookmobile.

Miller had no choice but to go back to the drawing board. “After I was done crying, I said, ‘what if we went all the way to the other end? What can the library offer on roller-skates, on a bicycle?’ So I decided to take the books out of the equation.” She settled on a small car, which, despite its size, she wanted to make a big, flashy impact.  They chose a Nissan Cube because “It’s very unexpected, since part of what we wanted to do is break stereotypes.”

LiLi gets her makeover

LiLi gets her makeover

“I went into a local car audio shop and asked them about speakers with suction cups,” for the roof of the car to broadcast in parades, Miller said. “After they were done laughing” they told Miller what was really involved in fitting out a car for audio broadcasting, which was also out of her budget.

However, as Miller described what the project was about, the salesman got interested despite her empty wallet. “He talked to the owner [Rick Francoeur] and within 24 hours” the company, 360 Fabrication, had decided to help pro bono. 360 ended up donating over $35000 worth of labor, time, and equipment, as well as facilitating donations from speaker and tire vendors.

After a month of taking the car apart, rewiring it, and putting it back together, LiLi (short for Library Live) was tricked out with an embedded, articulated 37 inch LCD TV; an Xbox, computer monitor, gadget bar, two 3G Internet-connected laptops; and, yes, external speakers. “They’re not held on with suction cups,” Miller laughed. She even has a few books on board, donated by First Book Canada, but they’re not for loaning, they’re for giving away.

LiLi and Miller started Library Live and On Tour! On April 25, and already they’re booked solid. Their dual mission combines traditional PR venues (parades, festivals, etc.), where Miller preaches the message that today’s library is anything but stodgy, with what she calls “the quieter heart”: delivering library services to marginalized populations at food banks, soup kitchens, transition houses, etc. She registers people for library cards, forgives fines ($1000 so far), teaches senior citizens how to use technology, and so on. The key, she says, is to have a conversation rather than delivering a dissertation, and to meet people where they are – literally as well as figuratively. “I’ve issued kids’ first library cards while their mothers are in line at the food bank,” she says.

LiLi's Gadget Bar

LiLi's Gadget Bar

Miller rarely sees her own office. She’s always on the road between Fraser Valley’s 15 municipalities. When she gets there, she doesn’t go in cold. Instead, she meets with each area’s manager and asks, “If you had a librarian one day a week who could do anything you wanted to do not in the library, what would it be?” Local librarians have had her focus on seniors, on the homeless, even on making an inventory of community partners. She also invites local staff, board members, and Friends of the Library to ride along.

To judge LiLi’s success, the library partnered with the Social Planning and Research Council of British Columbia to conduct a formal evaluation process which captures qualitative as well as quantitative measures; the final report will be issued in November.

Though the grant which funds Library Live is annual, the Fraser Valley CEO has committed to at least two years of the project, and the hope is win more grants sufficient not only to persist, but expand. “We are talking about a second car within two years, and our dream is a fleet of cars, going into communities, being loud, and delivering services that only libraries can provide,” said Miller.

Miller’s getting good at loud. “This is the best thing that has happened to me as a librarian,” she said. “I was playing Lady Gaga at top volume at a barbeque at a women’s homeless transition house. This guy came to the fence and said, ‘could you turn it down?’ and I was like, YES! It shows I’m not stuffy; it makes it accessible to people who didn’t think the library was for them.”

Miller and LiLi are making some noise beyond Fraser Valley, too, with press coverage everywhere from Boing Boing to Hot Rod magazine to the Seattle Post Intelligencer. “We’re pretty excited when we get in Hot Rod magazine; it gets us to audiences we wouldn’t normally get to,” said Miller.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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  1. Hi Meredith,
    What a heart-warming state-of-the-library article you have written to show what is possible. I think that Smitty Miller’s great attitude and all-things possible approach is responsible for such an outstanding result. I like how she has added the visits to managers of the 15 municipalities for much needed tasks to make this” wow-mobile”even more substantial and hopefully sustainable.
    As the owner of a summer cottage on Prince Edward Island, I would like to see such a service come there for its residents.
    Thank you for writing the article in an exciting way, as well.

    Ellie Lyman, Librarian