April 23, 2018

Delivering the Library

Bookmobiles, like the library systems they serve, have been in a state of transformation for quite some time. As with libraries in general, public perception sometimes lingers on the nostalgic past, while in fact today’s bookmobile services are focused firmly on the future.

“We are all doing the same thing, even though we all do it differently. We all have the same goal, which is outreach,” says Martha Buckner, Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services (ABOS) president.

It’s hard to pin down exactly how many bookmobiles are currently in operation throughout the United States. The most recent data from the National Center for Educational Statistics lists 864, with Kentucky (98) and California (69) leading the way. But that data has not been updated in recent years.

TRENDS TO GO What’s hot in the branches is also hot on the streets, such as tech and sustainability.
Top row: El Paso PL’s techmobile and bookmobile. Middle row: El Paso’s bookmobile is well-stocked;
El Paso PL’s lead trainer Robert Barberan does his thing in the techmobile. Bottom row: while Brooklyn PL’s
fleet fills in gaps for patrons boroughwide, King County’s Library2Go! delivers award-winning service.
El Paso photos ©2013 William Faulkner/AP Images; Brooklyn photo courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library

The average annual cost of keeping a bookmobile on the road is about $200,000, according to ABOS. So library systems all over the country must undertake a balancing act. Keeping bookmobiles on the road means coping with challenges unique to each system’s geography and budget. Still, even with tightly stretched budgets fraying in many U.S. districts, few libraries are willing to sacrifice their bookmobiles to scrounge for savings.

For example, in 2010, despite a hiring freeze and moderate budget cutbacks, King County Library System (KCLS), WA, LJ’s 2011 Library of the Year, added and equipped six ­Library2Go! vehicles. They rotate among sites, reaching out to home day-care centers as well as community centers, after-school programs, and senior centers, and one carries the KCLS Digital Discovery Zone, which brings tools for creating computer graphics, games, and animations to groups of all ages.

As instruments of community outreach, these “branches on wheels” were cited by many library officials as linchpins of their strategic future planning.

“I think libraries, emphatically, want to get more nimble,” says Richard Reyes-Gavilan, chief librarian, Brooklyn Public Library (BPL).

The not-just-books-mobile

Naturally, bookmobiles will embrace digital technology, library officials say. So bookmobiles that offer access to iPads, ereaders, ebooks, and computer stations are likely to become more popular, says Buckner, who is preparing for the third annual ABOS conference, to be held October 9–11 in Baton Rouge, LA. Techmobiles are already on the road, with staff trained to provide instruction.

“What’s trending now is whatever you see in the physical branches,” says Padma Polepeddi, the outreach services supervisor and coordinator at the Arapahoe Library District in Littleton, CO, and a 2008 LJ Mover & Shaker.

Besides technology, another trend in the greater library world that is making its mark on bookmobiles is sustainability. In addition to electric or hybrid engines, a surprising number of green tips used in stationary buildings, such as skylights and solar panels, are incorporated into bookmobiles as well, according to Michael Swendrowski, bookmobile consultant. Libraries from San Francisco to Portland, ME, boast ecofriendly outreach vehicles.

Polepeddi calls “integration” the key to the future of bookmobiles. She will present a workshop entitled “Innovate and Motivate” at the upcoming ABOS conference.

Some see a tight focus on technology as too limiting. “I think it’s narrow-minded to think any one thing is going to be the solution,” says Colleen Hall, outreach services coordinator for the St. Louis County Library, which circulates 12 million volumes in a 20-branch network, the largest in the state. “I think it really depends on what the community needs.”

Hall hopes libraries will work to determine what their individual service areas need and then react with “inventive” ideas. “Trying to get a one-size-fits-all [program] is just not going to work,” Hall says. “At least not for us.”

St. Louis already has a variety of sizes, literally as well as figuratively. The county library system operates seven mobile units: four old-school models, two modified panel vans, and one unit tailored for preschools.

Canada’s Fraser Valley Regional Library even has a tiny techmobile made out of a Nissan Cube, which both makes appearances at traditional PR venues and delivers library services to marginalized populations.

All over the map

In El Paso, TX, if it weren’t for bookmobiles, thousands of residents might never get Internet access, tips on preparing a résumé, or a chance to look over some books their children might like. The region is too sprawling for the fixed-site libraries to reach everyone.

The El Paso Public Library (EPPL) has 13 branches, serving a population of some 800,000 residents—and growing—in an area spread over 255 square miles in the high desert near the Mexican border. That’s why the network has one bookmobile and one techmobile, with two new vehicles rolling out next spring, including one specifically for children’s outreach.

“It’s the most cost-efficient way to make sure we have the flexibility to serve neighborhoods,” Dionne L. Mack, EPPL director of library services, says of her bookmobile program. “Here it is very much an extension of our brick-and-mortar library. We’re seeing a huge number of people. They line up…kids, waiting in the sun. They’re waiting for their bookmobile to come. And they’re leaving with a stack of books.”

Yet books are not all they’re getting. Less than two years ago, the district rolled out its new techmobile. It provides residents with access to computers, email, job-seeking resources, hands-on instruction, and other digital amenities crucial to a region where, according to Mack, only 34 percent of homes are wired for the Internet.

Mack came to El Paso in 2011, after a stint as executive director BPL. “In New York, my thing was contracting,” she says. But in Texas, the community has supported expansion of library services, including the bookmobiles.

“It’s a sustainable way to serve the community,” Mack says.

Storm support

Back at the BPL Mack left, bookmobiles have come to serve an entirely different mission. Rather than stretch the library system’s footprint, the borough needs them to keep the system whole.

Hurricane Sandy illustrated why the 60-branch BPL will never want to be without its four bookmobiles, which are 29 feet long and can hold 6,000 print volumes. In October 2012, storm damage forced the indefinite closure of branches in Coney Island and Gerritsen Beach, neither of which will reopen before this autumn, when massive and expensive renovations are finally complete.

In the intervening year, the bookmobiles made certain those neighborhoods were never completely cut off from their public library.

“Is it an incredibly popular book distribution system? Absolutely not, but it helps the community remember that the library is there. It offers a semblance of caring. You just can’t measure them by circulation alone. I’ll be perfectly honest; they don’t circulate a tremendous amount of material,” BPL’s Reyes-Gavilan says of his fleet. He says there is a fixed-site library within a half-mile of all 2.5 million Brooklyn residents, so there aren’t many underserved neighborhoods crying out for bookmobile service. But the fixed-site system is an aging one; significant repairs or renovations are in the works practically everywhere. One branch in the Park Slope neighborhood was closed almost three years while a new roof was installed. Again, the bookmobiles lent a hand.

They are earning their keep, or BPL wouldn’t keep them. “We do have humongous funding challenges,” Reyes-Gavilan says. “We don’t have a dime to waste on nostalgia.”

Service to seniors

In Norristown, PA, taking the bookmobiles digital is not on the agenda. Russell Rush heads bookmobile services at the Montgomery County–Norristown Public Library (MCNPL). He is proud of his system’s Words on Wheels vehicle, which has catered to senior citizens for the last three decades. Montgomery County has an aging population, he says, and the library wants their business.

“There’s far more demand for the service than we can provide,” Rush says. “It really is all things to all people.”

The Words on Wheels bookmobile visits 52 retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and senior housing complexes throughout the county, which is situated in the state’s southeast corner. The patrons are ages 55 and older, and Rush says large-print books, DVDs, and audiobooks are particularly popular. Residents can also order materials in advance and pick them up at bookmobile stops.

Going forward, Rush says popular demand should keep the old-school bookmobiles on the road, provided the funding continues. It currently costs about $82,000 a year to run MCNPL’s Words on Wheels. “I think it’s more of a matter of funding than need,” Rush says of possible future obstacles. “There’s always a need for that human contact. People always want someone to communicate with.”

Montgomery County recently received a federal Community Development Block Grant, and Rush says the library is slated to receive about $143,600, which must go toward the purchase of a new Words on Wheels vehicle. It hopes to have it on the road by next spring, although the grant will cover only about 70 percent of the estimated $205,000 cost.

As they prepare to kick the tires on new models, Rush repeats a familiar priority. “The number one thing we look for is reliability. It’s like the mail; it must go through no matter what. The show must go on,” he says.

Bringing in a bookmobile

“I just hate to see anybody without a library,” Barb Read, director of Rolling Hills Consolidated Library in St. Joseph, MO, says of her motivation for conducting a long campaign to bring the rural region its first bookmobile.

Read speaks glowingly of her recently refurbished and restocked 2001 Blue Bird diesel bookmobile, which made a limited number of stops this summer as part of a breaking-in period. “They’re like magnets,” she says of bookmobiles. “They are fascinating to people. They’re cozy. They’re kind of like a cabin in the woods with books…. You get gold-star service in a bookmobile. They see the same person in there every time. They regard you as their private personal librarian.”

The Rolling Hills Consolidated district operates exactly two branches serving two counties in northwest Missouri, so patrons can have as much as a 30-minute drive to their nearest brick-and-mortar site. Read knew that a bookmobile would fill in the gaps, as so many rural counties in America have demonstrated, getting the books and services to the people.

Getting just the right vehicle was not quick or easy. It was a two-year process. After selling her library board on the idea, Read and her staff began work on a survey to gauge community interest in a bookmobile. The results showed overwhelming support for the idea, so the next step was launching a private fundraising effort. Once that bore fruit, the library decided to purchase a used vehicle. “We found three good candidates,” Read says, and the list was quickly narrowed down.

In Wayne County, IN, the library district had mothballed its bookmobile for want of operating funds; it sat idle for about two years. Dave Gach, a Rolling Hills library board member who operates an auto repair shop, flew to the Hoosier State to have a look. The vehicle passed muster, and a sale price was negotiated. Gach then drove the bookmobile back to Missouri, where it was given new tires and shocks, cleaned, and fitted with new shelves and other interior touches.

Then Read added the most important touch: librarians. “I had to hire a bookmobile staff,” Read says, “because we didn’t have one.”

By May, the vehicle was ready for some test runs and a few limited community appearances to whet the public’s appetite. A modest summer schedule of bookmobile stops is now ­under way.

“It was a real treat to see the bookmobile come,” says Deb Ezzell, the district’s bookmobile team leader. “There’s something about the smell of books when you step into it. It refreshes my memory of being a kid.”

Buying a bookmobile

For a library district, purchasing an outreach vehicle can be somewhat akin to a family choosing a car. You can get one used, save a few bucks, and hope you’re not simply inheriting someone else’s problems, or invest in a new model, selecting the little extras and custom features to get the most for your sizable cash outlay.

The Internet is a good place to start. On vehiclesuccess.com, you can browse a variety of used bookmobiles for sale. A recent visit showed a fully refurbished 37-foot vehicle with only 15,000 miles on it, model year 2003, available for $54,900 in Montana. A mere $23,000 (or best offer) can get you a 32-foot 1994 bookmobile-type van with classic wooden shelving, currently in California. It’s seen about 110,000 miles, but the ad noted “awesome potential.” Even Craigslist and eBay had used bookmobiles for sale, although the pickings appeared rather slim.

For those who can afford it, investing in a new vehicle remains a popular route. The Bay County Library System (BCLS), MI, near Saginaw Bay, recently unveiled its 30-foot 2014 Blue Bird bus, which first hit the streets in August. The bookmobile cost about $196,000, library director Tom Birch tells LJ, but was sorely needed to replace its cramped 1999 predecessor, which now needed too many visits to the mechanic.

“We’re really confident that we did the right thing and we have a machine now that we can rely on for many years,” Birch says.

In El Paso, the library district paid $398,000 to buy two vehicles, with delivery expected in 2014, officials there told LJ. A federal grant worth $143,000 will enable the Montgomery County–Norristown Public Library, PA, to buy a new senior outreach bookmobile, the head of bookmobile services there says. But the district will have to come up with about 30 percent of the purchase price to get the vehicle it wants.

Bookmobile manufacturers and vendors, companies such as Meridian Specialty Vehicles and Matthews Specialty Vehicles, work with clients to design interior spaces for shelving, computer stations, and other features. BCLS bought a bus from the Blue Bird Corp. of Fort Valley, GA, and hired OBS Inc., of Canton, OH, to convert the interior into a bookmobile.

Of course, spending $200,000 on a bookmobile is only the initial expense. Outreach staff, materials, and maintenance are three of the main annual expenditures, not to mention keeping a large vehicle gassed up.

Birch says his system has budgeted $80,000 for a year of bookmobile service, which over time has been reduced to three days a week because of budget cutbacks. That includes salary for 1.5 FTEs. BPL, meanwhile, operates a fleet of six outreach vehicles, and chief librarian Reyes-Gavilan says annual costs fall somewhere between $200,000 and $250,000.

GOLDEN OLDIES The Rolling Hills, MO, used bookmobile (above) is still good for a lot of service, as is the vehicle taken
for a spin by Kentucky poet laureate Frank X. Walker, who posed for a Read poster in Boyle County’s bookmobile

A driving desire

Bookmobiles’ emotional appeal to childhood pleasures isn’t limited to librarians. Frank X. Walker, Kentucky’s poet laureate, for years spoke publicly about his desire to someday drive the library bookmobile in the place where he learned to love books. This May, his dream finally came true.

“It’s not brand new,” Walker says of the Kentucky’s Boyle County Public Library (BCPL) vehicle. But after a quick spin or two around an empty parking lot to help get a feel for the wide turning radius and the tricky breaks, “I got the hang of it. It’s a perfect fit for me,” he says. The vehicle he drove is named the Lottie Ellis Bookmobile, for a longtime patron of BCPL who died in 1999 at age 91. Ellis had willed enough money to BCPL to keep gas in the tank, books on the shelves, and repairs made when needed.

Yet that perfect fit does not prevent Walker from seeing the potential of an update. “I drove what the regulars considered a modified dinosaur,” Walker says. “I think a more modern mobile could serve a broader audience, especially patrons with disabilities and those who live in isolated communities.”

Walker, who is also an accomplished educator, drove the BCPL bookmobile to the Montessori School in Danville, KY. There, he read Curious George Visits the Library aloud at a story hour, before attending to the young customers inside the bookmobile.

“It was very playful,” says Georgia de Araujo, BCPL director. “He just never quit smiling the entire day.”

“The first item on my bucket list is already gone,” Walker says.

Four decades earlier, Walker was one of those Danville kids waiting eagerly for the vehicle to turn the corner and park near his home. “When I was a kid, to me it was more important than the ice cream truck,” Walker says.

“I remembered how much joy I experienced because of the bookmobile coming into the housing projects. Because of books, there was nowhere I couldn’t go. As a result, my world view even as a kid was pretty large…. The bookmobile made that all possible for me.

Bob Warburton writes about library issues as a freelance contributor. He also works as a production editor for the Record newspaper in Woodland Park, NJ, and was previously employed by the New York Times and the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. I grew up in the small town of Smithville, Indiana and attended the tiny Smithville High School. When I was in grade school for a while in the late 50’s we did not have a library. When I was about 8 or 9 the highlight for me was every two weeks when the Bookmobile would come to our school. We would file out in small groups and search the few rows of books for something new to read. I remember the kind librarian, Mrs. Hensey, who would check our books out to us. I could hardly wait for the next visit of our beloved Bookmobile. I remember it as a small to medium truck that had a custom cab built on the back with two or three steps up to the shelves of books inside. It wasn’t sleek and shiny like the ones in this story, but to this child it was a golden shrine.

    I totally agreed with Mr. Walker when he said “Because of books, there was nowhere I couldn’t go.” Ironically, in my adult life I have had the good fortune to sail around the world with my family and see many of the places I only thought I would ever be able to read about. I am 62 years old now and I work in the Thomas G. Carpenter Library at the University of North Florida. The word Bookmobile instantly brings back such warm childhood memories. Thank you for this flashback.