Saturday, February 27, 2010


Raise your hand if you have patronized a bookmobile. I remember boarding one as a child, but can't confirm date or place. I just remember that it was a wondrous experience. The arrival of the bookmobile was more exciting than an ice cream truck rolling up!

The idea of a library on wheels to serve communities without access to a local public library goes back to 1859 in England with the Warrington Perambulating Library and to 1905 in the U.S. with the Washington County Library Book Wagon. These horse-driven bookmobiles gave way to the motorized variety seen here in photos from North Carolina (1st image) and Virginia (2nd image). Here are the interior and exterior of a bookmobile in Johnson County, North Carolina, in the 1950s. Here is the modern conversion of a vintage airstream camper into a bookmobile. If you scroll down here, you will see a contemporary Japanese bookmobile. Here you can watch the parade of bookmobiles at the 2009 conference of the American Library Association. And here we are back at the animal-powered version, the biblioburro used today to reach thousands of children in rural Colombia. Mobile libraries are drawn by donkeys in Zimbabwe and by camels in Somalia. Some counties in Norway are serviced by a library ship. Bookmobiles and other "roving resources" can be found in many countries and in all U.S. states except Maine. Of the states, Kentucky - with 98 - has the most. The 1960s were the "Golden Age" of bookmobiles, with a decline beginning in the 1970s, but they still serve the needs of the community. While they have traditionally operated in rural areas, they now additionally target urban centers like New York that suffer from cutbacks, cities like New Orleans whose libraries await renovation, and centers for children, senior citizens, and the disabled. Bookmobile programs are plagued by start-up costs and erratic fuel costs, but there are some 800+ traveling U.S. roads.

Author, musician, and documentary filmmaker Tom Corwin launched a bookmobile-inspired project after buying a decommissioned one for $7,500 on Craigslist. The multi-media film project "Behind the Wheel of the Bookmobile" follows a classic bookmobile across country with acclaimed authors taking turns at the wheel. At its stops, Corwin invites the public aboard and interviews individuals about books that have influenced their lives. He describes the project and shows some of that footage here and collects fans on Facebook. One of Corwin's interviewees is W. Ralph Eubanks, who - as an African-American - was not allowed in the local Mississippi library, but was allowed on the bookmobile and is now Director of Publishing at the Library of Congress and an author of his own. The author of the series Lemony Snicket did a stint on Corwin's bookmobile and says, "My life feels like nothing but a tapestry of ideas hijacked from literature."

Long live the bookmobile!

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