November 30, 2015

ASU Students Aim To Turn Used Food Trucks Into Mobile School Libraries

Elijah Allen, on of the students behind the BiblioTrucka project photo courtesy of Andy Delisle

Elijah Allen, one of the students behind BiblioTrucka
photo courtesy of Andy Delisle

A group of students at Arizona State University (ASU) has proposed a revamp of the traditional bookmobile—one that aims to provide the services of a school library to schools that may not have access to that resource any longer. The design, dubbed Bibliotrucka, aims to take advantage of the proliferation of food trucks in the Phoenix area, recycling out of commission trucks into modular moving libraries that can be customized on a day-to-day basis for students of different learning levels and cultural backgrounds.

Students Alex Miller, Jasmine Clarke-Telfer, and Elijah Allan came up with the idea while working together in their Changemaking in Education course at ASU. Professor Nikki Gusz told Library Journal that the class is a way to challenge students to tackle real-life problems in the world of education. “The focus of the class is education, innovation, and entrepreneurship,” said Gusz. “Current teachers posed a challenge they were facing in their schools and communities, and students took it on themselves to propose solutions.”

When Miller, Clarke-Telfer, and Allan were being presented with the issues faced by the Phoenix-area schools they were seeking to assist, the issue of libraries struck particularly close to home for all three. “Elijah, Jasmine and myself all had very fond memories of utilizing public libraries and school libraries growing up,” Miller told Library Journal. “All of us were shocked that some schools did not have libraries.”

That’s an all too common situation in Arizona, said Shirley Berow, chair of the Arizona Library Association’s (AZLA) Teacher-Librarian division. “Because of budget cuts, the school library programs throughout the state are not functioning at their full potential,” Berow told Library Journal. “In many districts, there has been no money allotted for book purchase; there are also large discrepancies in technology available for students.” Librarians are in short supply as well—the Tuscon Unified School District, the state’s largest, employs just seven certified librarians to serve 112 schools.

The team’s solution presented itself on a tour of one such school, NFL Youth Education Town (NFL YET), a charter school in south Phoenix without a library on-site, where a teacher described the book bags hanging from student’s chairs as “little mobile libraries.” The idea struck home with the team, and they started working on ideas that would evolve into the Bibliotrucka concept. A full service bookmobile was cost-prohibitive, they concluded. But with Phoenix seeing a boom in food trucks serving the area, plenty of used trucks were available after on-the-go gourmets had outgrown their first homes, and could be picked up on the cheap.

An ALA document released to support National Bookmobile Day in 2012 estimated the cost of a traditional bookmobile at $200,000. By contrast, used food trucks, which include helpful gear like onboard generators, interior lighting, and extant electrical sockets, can regularly be found on sites like eBay starting at less than $40,000. While there are some costs in eliminating things that the newly minted mobile libraries won’t need—the grills and deep fryers that are standard equipment on food trucks, for example, will have to go—Miller’s team is confident that they can keep costs down, especially by partnering with local businesses willing to provide low-cost labor for the chance to do some good in their community, though they’re still trying to lock down assistance from those who have expressed interest in being involved.

While the cozy food trucks may not have the storage space of the much-loved bookmobile, the Bibliotrucka project is less about offering access to books—though traditionalists need not worry, as print offerings will remain part of the equation—and more about making sure kids in schools without libraries can still get hands-on time with new technology like e-readers and tablets. “We want to help kids to get a feel for all sorts of resources,” said Miller, something that she deemed especially important as important parts of school curricula, like standardized tests, are moving online.

Right now, the Bibliotrucka project is in a holding pattern as the team waits to hear if they’ve received grant money the applied for from sources like ASU and the Clinton Global Initiative, and are also looking to find entrepreneurs willing to donate old trucks so they can forge ahead if those grants don’t materialize.

If they can secure funding, they’re hoping to have the first Bibliotrucka on its way to NFL YET when the new school year starts in August. That would be a boon to the school, vice principal Adam Sharp told Library Journal. “Currently, we take field trips to the library, not as often as we would like,” Sharp said. “Having additional books or ebooks would dramatically improve our students’ reading scores.”

When the rubber hits the road, though, Bibliotrucka won’t be a resource just for the school that drove its creation. “The great thing about BiblioTrucka is that it can be customized to fit anyone’s needs,” Clarke-Telfer told the ASU News. “Here in Phoenix we have a large Hispanic population, so we can fill it with books that speak to that community. If we go to where Elijah’s from, the Navajo Nation, we can fill it with books about their cultural ties.”

Either set of materials is likely to be particularly welcome in light of Arizona’s Ethnic Studies ban, which is being challenged in court by the Freedom to Read Foundation.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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  1. I am an ASU graduate (1982) and am proud that ASU students thought of this idea. I am also a past Arizona resident and a children’s book author so I am willing to donate some of my books to the Bibliotrucka when they get a sponsor. Please have someone contact me through my website:

  2. What a GREAT idea! I was just reading James Patterson’s article from SLJ “Let’s Save Reading–and School Libraries” (Oct. 2, 1013) and he is calling out to everyone for help in this endeavor to get and KEEP our kids reading. It is very inspiring and your idea ties right in with inspiring things we can do to get and KEEP our kids reading.

    Thank you! Keep up the good work!