Back in 1917, two librarians from the Missoula Public Library wanted to bring library service to the remote lumber camps that peppered Montana’s vast mining range. One of them, Ruth Worden, was from a very powerful Missoula family. When she brought the idea to the man in charge of the camps, Kenneth Ross, she didn’t know if it would work—if the lumberjacks would actually use the books—and neither did Ross. In fact, he expected they would not, notes a story in the Missoulian. But Ross felt he couldn’t say no to Worden, so packets of books started to arrive in the camp office in Bonner. A year later, 4,000 books had been checked out—and the case was made.
A few years later, the story continues, Worden wanted to hitch a reading room library onto the trains that were the primary conduits to and from the camps—moving workmen, tools, and, of course, the lumber and ore that had been harvested. In this Worden was, arguably, cutting-edge. Book wagons were only recently coming into use in some U.S. cities, and the first motorized iterations were to follow shortly. Her version, tied to a local opportunity, was spot-on. This time, stereotypes shattered, Ross readily agreed. The boxcar (pictured) carried comfort and learning into the camps, with books, a large table with chairs, a woodstove, and even a phonograph. It was popular and stayed in use into the 1950s. The boxcar, in the process of refurbishment, is now on display at the Historical Museum of Fort Missoula.
Being myself from the small mining town of Wallace, ID, I have often thought about the barrier to access presented by the miles between here and there: over a mountain pass, up a gulch, down into the next valley. Rural libraries have long been making a difference, as the Wallace Public Library, housed in a Carnegie building, still does. (My interest in their efficacy and impact led me to help to create LJ’s Best Small Library in America Award, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.) I am certain that the Missoula librarians’ instinct to break through to those men made a huge, if unanticipated and largely immeasurable, difference in their lives.
Urban environments offer their own distances and barriers in the form of poor transit and economic and digital disparities. Libraries in every setting keep stepping into the gap with outreach that delivers service where it has never been, in forms previously unimagined. Libraries have been getting that right for a long time. This deft outpost mentality allows the library to test small units of library service when needed and then scale up when successful—whether with physical book deposits in strategic locations or through library kiosks that also offer digital engagement, computer centers in retail stores, librarians on bikes and in vehicles of all sizes, or by linking elbows with informal libraries such as the Little Free Library movement and the Uni Project.
Missoula’s boxcar library brings home to me just how important it is simply to reach out. It’s a reminder of how powerful it can be to expand beyond core library users to serve those we don’t already know much about. It’s a testament to a tradition of great service by libraries small and large. Librarians who anticipate need, rather than waiting for proof that the initiative will work, prove the case in the doing.