February 17, 2018

Houston Librarians Create Traveling Library

The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library (BPTL) is the brainchild of two Houston-area librarians, Kelly Allen and Chris Grawl, a couple who met while getting their MSIS degrees from the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Information. The BPTL will essentially be a free range bookmobile, operating on a rent-barter-donate system. Named after the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the BPTL will concentrate on the Greater Houston area, but its founders are open to collaborations further afield.

To buy the bookmobile itself, the founders have turned to crowdsourcing via IndieGogo. The vehicle, a 2004 Ford Cube Van, costs $8,995, and it will cost Allen and Grawl another $1000 to get to Ohio to pick it up over Thanksgiving. With 20 days to go, the crowdsourcing campaign has only raised $1,248 so far, even after a mention on popular website Boing Boing. But Allen and Grawl are determined to proceed whether they make the total or not. “If we don’t make our fundraising goal, we’re still going to proceed. We’ll just have to dip into our own (meager) savings a bit,” they told LJ.

They plan to combine the trip with stops in Louisville, Nashville, Memphis, and Little Rock to pick up book donations to supplement the 320 items currently in the collection, which were “pulled from our personal shelves and generous donations,” Allen and Grawl told LJ. “We don’t have any particular collection development goals, other than a variety of materials in a variety of formats… The BPTL’s collection (and the BPTL itself) is more about serendipitous discovery than constant access to the newest (or specific) titles.”

The bookmobile can hold about 1,000 titles, and Allen and Grawl plan to rent a climate controlled storage space to hour excess collection, which will be rotated out “to make sure it’s not just the same items every time someone visits,” they said. To borrow from the collection, members can join on a one, two, three, or five item plan for annual fees ranging from $5 to $20, much like Netflix. Titles will be managed via an open source catalog and reservation system, with no due dates or late fees. (Those who want to own a title permanently can barter for it.)

Donations will be added to the collection, re-donated to local libraries and charities, or placed in a free bin. By early 2013, Allen and Grawl expect to incorporate as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, so donations will be tax deductible.

Allen and Grawl both work in libraries in the Houston area—Grawl in a clerical capacity for the Harris County Public Library’s Northwest Branch and Allen as an academic librarian at Lee College. “Creating the BPTL is effectively a hobby for us at this point,” they told LJ. “We’re both very lucky to have full-time, decent-to-well-paying jobs that allow us to make our dream a reality.  Since we feel strongly that the BPTL will be a valuable addition to our community and an innovation in the library world, it’s something we’re willing to take a risk on.  Ideally, we would love for this to evolve into a full-time commitment but we’re realistic optimists and just excited to give our idea a fighting chance.”

Besides access to the collection, Allen and Grawl plan to provide reader’s advisory services, voter registration cards, and applications for membership at public libraries, as well as building a blog community and links to free electronic resources that Allen and Grawl feel are useful and credible. “We’ve discussed the idea of creating a LibraryBox, which would allow users to connect directly without use of the internet and browse the files we’ve made available. These files could be PG books, government forms, technology guides and tutorials, and even CC-cleared creations from local artists looking for exposure. But that’s something that we’ll be focusing on more in the future after getting everything up and running,” they added.

The Bookmobile will also double as a bookmobile-for-hire for library card drives and other uses. “While our space is likely most amenable to public libraries, we would be crazy not to make it available to other interested parties (school & academic libraries, museums, artists & art galleries, bookstores, etc.) for pop-up shops & galleries, exhibits, and the like. Part of the appeal of this bookmobile-for-hire model is the potential for the bookmobile to be a sort of incubator space, where individuals and organizations can try out new ideas and new services,” Allen and Grawl told Michelle Boule’s blog The Wandering Eyre.

They also told The Wandering Eyre that they wanted to serve as ambassadors for libraries to people who are not already using them, in particular by reading out to Houston’s flourishing food truck community.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

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

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library Journal, Stronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.


  1. This is a great idea. I like to read and in such a special bookmobile it will be more fun. In the past years I bartered all my books on barterquest.com to save money!