Hello Book Nerds!
It’s Episode 9 and while sweet tooths may think the ice cream truck is the best vehicle ever invented, we book nerds know they’re wrong because the Bookmobile can’t be beat.
In this episode we journey from the first traveling libraries all the way to clever ways people today are ensuring everyone gets a chance to fall in love with books.
Behind the Scenes
As mentioned in the episode, I’ve been a book nerd ever since I was a little kid and I LOVED it when the Bookmobile would pull up to my school.
But since Bookmobiles rarely trundle their way through the city these days, I hadn’t given them much thought until I started flipping through Jane Mount’s book for book nerds, Bibliophile.
In one section she shows off a few ways people around the world are getting their books beyond libraries and bookstores. That got the wheels turning in my brain and made me curious to learn how the Bookmobile started.
I discovered several things I never knew about my beloved Bookmobile and, if you’re a book nerd at heart, you’re going to love this episode.
As usual, clicking the image below will take you to the episode’s web page where you can listen right in your browser, or you can use the links just under the image to find plenty of other listening options. And remember, all these listening options are completely free!!
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The (Rough) Transcript
Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.
It’s episode 9 and while people with a sweet tooth may think the ice cream truck is the best vehicle ever invented, us book nerds know they’re wrong.
Before we start, a couple quick business matters. So first, right now, or as soon as you safely can, be sure to click that subscribe button in whatever podcast app you’re listening in, or if you’re watching this on YouTube, well there’s a subscribe button right under the video eagerly waiting for your click. It’s super simple and ensures you won’t miss a single episode. Plus, it makes me happy.
The second business-y matter would not only make me happy, but it could make you Book Owl famous (which is nothing like being truly famous, sorry). If you have a topic you’d like covered in the show, all you have to do is send me a message using the contact link you’ll find in the episode notes. So if there’s a bookstore, author, or book you’re curious about but you’re too lazy to do the research yourself, toss those quandaries my way and I’ll do the research for you. And I’ll mention you in the episode as a way to say thanks.
Okay, that’s enough business, because what do I see coming up the road? Yes! It’s the BookMobile.
So at its heart, the Bookmobile is a way to bring library books to people who live where it’s hard to get to a library, such as rural areas, or to bring books to people who might have a tough time getting out, such as residents of senior homes. But as a kid I have fond memories of the Bookmobile trundling up to the school.
Now, keep in mind, I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and no matter where you lived, you had easy access to one of the branches of the Multnomah County library system. But I guess the library wanted to spark kids’ interest in reading and so every now and then (never often enough in my opinion), the this big sort of acid green BookMobile truck would appear. And sometimes I was the only kid in there…and sometimes they’d have to ask me to leave so they could go on to their next stop. Seriously, I’ve always been a book nerd.
Anyway, the bookmobile goes by a gob of different names such as the traveling library, the book wagon, the book truck, the book auto service (which has to be the worst), and the library on wheels (which is now my favorite). And as we’ll see later, the bookmobile isn’t just limited to four-wheeled things with engines. Book nerds are out spreading their book nerd ways via donkey, camel, hand-wheeled cart, and more.
But how did this start? The short answer…I don’t know. Books and scrolls have been transported between libraries pretty much since libraries began, but these transfers were mainly to bring the items for scholarly study, not for sharing with the masses. However, I can imagine that as books became less expensive and easier to make, and as literacy rates increased, that there were probably people carrying around books to loan out to others.
Of course, that’s just my guess. The first system that was a sort of prototype bookmobile came about in 1839, when the American Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (which totally sounds like a creepy organization from a George Orwell story) created the American Library School which wasn’t actually a school, it was a set of fifty books that cost $20, which is about $580 in 2020 dollars.
The set included books on history, biographies, a novel (yes, one novel), health, science, Christianity, travel memoirs, and more. These sets came in a wooden case and were intended for schools to have a set course curriculum that could be followed country wide, but they were also carted around the frontier lands as a traveling library. And if you ever make it to the Smithsonian Museums, you can see the only complete set in its original box.
But we have to wait until 1857 and we have to jump the pond over to England to find the next evidence of an early Bookmobile. This one had the perfectly British name of a Perambulating Library and it could be found perambulating a circuit through eight villages in Cumbria in northwestern England. The idea was sponsored by a philanthropist by the name of George Moore who, as would later be the mission of the modern Bookmobile, wanted to spread the written word to rural populations. And, based on other perambulating libraries around this time, I’m going to guess that George’s books were pulled by horse or some other cooperative four-legged animal, although he could have had people walking with them.
Okay, now we’re zipping back across the pond because in the early 1900s, we start to see the first true traveling libraries popping up in the U.S.
One of the first was started by a librarian from Maryland named Mary Titcomb (insert childish joke of your choice). So her library wasn’t exactly a library. It was basically a box of books that were left at 23 public locations such as the post office or grocery stores for people to borrow from. Well, Mary realized this didn’t do much good for the people who didn’t come into to town regularly, so she arranged for a book wagon to take reading material directly to people’s homes. And I like to think that any fines were probably paid in apples for the horses who drew the wagon.
Of course, in the US most of our Bookmobiles now come around on four wheels instead of four legs. The first motor-powered bookmobile came about in 1920. Yet again, we have a librarian to thank for her ingenuity because Sarah Askew redesigned her Model T and started driving books around rural areas of New Jersey.
But our four-legged friends weren’t out of work yet. After the Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal program, the WPA, began the Pack Horse Project. This ran from 1935 to 1943 and used pack animals to bring books and a few other necessities into the deepest parts of the mountains of Kentucky and the Appalachia area. Known as packhorse librarians, these folks were sometimes the only outside contact for the insular mountain residents.
But as we saw at the beginning, bookmobiles weren’t limited to bringing books to rural areas. In the 1960s, in the Bronx, an interracial team of librarians started the Library in Action program to bring books to kids of color who may not have had access to books or libraries otherwise.
Have I mentioned how cool the bookmobile program is??
Anyway, the Bookmobile programs reached their height in the US in the 1950s to 1970s, when there were well over 1000 vehicles bringing books to kids and adults. These days there’s only about 600 of them left. It’s not that people don’t still love the idea, but budget cuts, easy access to online resources, and environmental concerns are eating away at the bookmobile. However, there may be hope for our beloved BookTruck. New ones are being outfitted with solar powered batteries and hybrid engines.
And hey, we still have a National Bookmobile Day every April, so maybe there’s still hope for the Bookmobile.
Or perhaps we need to think outside the four-wheeled box on this one because as I mentioned earlier, there are many ways people around the world are getting books to people. And for this next bit, I have to give thanks to Jane Mount’s book Bilibophile.
If you don’t want four wheels, maybe you prefer three. The Il Bibliomotocarro is a three-wheeled book truck driven by former schoolteacher Antonio La Cava. He fills it with books and drives 300 miles each week to bring reading material to kids in southern Italy. Or maybe you prefer to go back to our four-legged friends. Well, in Colombia there’s the Biblioburro that was started by another schoolteacher. Luis Soriano was feeling a bit down that his students didn’t have books at home, so now he and his two donkeys Alfa and Beta bring books to them. In Kenya and Mongolia, you can find camels doing the same thing…although they’re probably a bit grumpier about it. Or perhaps you just want to keep your feet on the ground and get your 10,000 steps in. Well, you can make like Martin Murillo, again of Colombia, who loves reading so much, he brings books to one and all with his La Carreta Literaria. And if you’re feet get tired, do as Martin does and stop to read the kids a story.
Okay, that’s it for the Bookmobile.
And now I’m tossing it over to you. Do you have memories of the Bookmobile? Does your area still have bookmobiles? I want to hear from you, so be sure to use that contact info in the show notes to drop me a line. And who knows, if I need to fill up some audio space, I might just read your comment in a future episode. Oh, and those of you who are signed up for The Book Owl newsletter are going to get a link to some great images of historic bookmobiles from around the world, so be sure to keep an eye out for that.
Again, that’s it for the show, which means it’s time for updates. If you’re done, thanks so much for listening. If not, here we go.
I don’t really have any podcast news other than the next episode is number 10 and I’ve got something fun lined up for that one. As I mentioned in the newsletter and the blog last time, I’ve updated all the old episodes as best I could to improve the sound quality. They’re still not perfect, but they are better.
As for writing. There’s a lot of news coming up in this realm of my creative life. From release dates, to audiobooks, to learning some new tricks, I could fill up a whole hour just covering it all. But instead of doing that, if you’re interested, I’m just going to encourage you to either follow my writing blog or to sign up for my writing newsletter (you’ll get a free story if you do), and surprise surprise those links are in the show notes.
Okay everyone, that is it for this episode. Keep on truckin’ with the Bookmobile and I will hoot at you next time.
The book owl podcast is a production fo daisy dog media, copyright 2020, all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod.
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