Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Bookmobile: Defining the Information Poor

As a librarian, I am constantly looking for new ways implement technology in an attempt to organize and disseminate information to a community of users. However, a topic that is often ignored by overzealous librarians immersed in a Web 2.0 culture is the digital divide that exists in this country. Succinctly, technology is used by those who can afford it. The following is a paper outlining an archaic library service that one would least expect to remedy this situation: the bookmobile.

This blog post was selected for publication in the Journal of Bloglandia Vol. 2 No. 1


Information is the buzz word of the 21st century. Social scientists have prophesized that we’ve suddenly become an “information society” with an “information economy.” Drawing on this model, Al Gore, arguably, coined the term “information superhighway” referring to the Clinton/Gore administration’s plan to deregulate communication services and widen the scope of the internet. But as a nation America has always been a country which prided itself on its information-delivery channels, from public schools to the postal service. And perhaps the best-recognized repositories of our society’s information are its public libraries.

From their earliest inception in the mid-1800s, public libraries were idealistically conceived as places where American democracy would flourish as all citizens enjoyed equal access to the abundance of the world’s collected record of human knowledge. In reality, however, these institutions were often created by and operated for the Anglo-Saxon, educated middle classes. Whether intentionally or not, library holdings, furnishings, programs, and even hours of operation all sent a powerful message about who controlled access to information in our society and provided the basis for defining the information rich and the information poor.

Outreach, as defined by the Dictionary of Library and Information Science, is: a library public service program initiated and designed to meet the information needs of an unserved or inadequately served target group. The bookmobile, from its inception, embodied this service mission. As a corollary, the library materials and driving route for a bookmobile provide fertile ground for analyzing the information poor in a community. A study of issues surrounding bookmobile service should provide a stark depiction of the powers of and limits to public libraries under the most democratic of intentions. And in exploring the information carried by the bookmobile, as well as the patrons served by it, the continuing role of the bookmobile as a pivotal resource for providing information to inadequately served populations may find renewed interest as an agent in closing the digital divide.

This paper is divided into four main sections, each exploring issues surrounding the efforts of bookmobiles in serving the information poor nationally:

• Brief History of the Bookmobile Program
• Bookmobile Patrons
• Bookmobile Holdings
• Future of the Bookmobile Program in America


The birth of the bookmobile in the United States took place around the turn of the century (circa 1900) at the Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown, Maryland. In order to service their 66 remote “deposit stations” in stores and churches, each holding around 35 volumes, they hired a horse and wagon to carry books back and forth to these stations three times a week. For its time, this was considered the pinnacle of innovation in terms of library extension services.

Shortly after establishing the program, one rather astute librarian proposed in 1905 that the library purchase their own horse and wagon, adding shelves so that it could serve as a surrogate “branch library” itself, in addition to its routine deposit station deliveries. As an added bonus, this “book wagon” would also serve as a decorative symbol of “advertisement” for the main library. A year later in 1906, Melvil Dewey advocated for a theoretical model of what he called “field libraries,” where a ““traveling librarian would give a day or two each week or month to a locality too small to afford his entire time.” In 1912, the Washington County Free Library constructed what would become the first true bookmobile (abandoning deposit station deliveries), a custom built International Harvester Autowagon. It was reported that “the bookmobile carried 2,500 volumes” — more than all the deposit stations combined — “and covered a 500 square mile territory in a place where there was virtually no high school.”

The idea of a “mobile library” spread quickly across the country as it provided an inexpensive way for libraries to service the information poor. According to Eleanor Francis Brown, a custom-made bookmobile could be purchased for under $1000 in the early 1900s. In 1915 the town of Hibbing, Minnesota developed what would become the standard prototype for bookmobile production for the next 75 years. In order to combat bitterly cold winters, the library designed the first “walk-in” bookmobile, complete with a coal stove.

By 1937, bookmobile production in the United States was on the increase with 60 bookmobiles in existence at the time. The popularity of the service forced the American Library Association to provide guidance for libraries wishing to acquire a bookmobile, emerging with an advisory volume called Book Automobiles in 1937. Unfortunately, this advisory volume was little used as bookmobile production and service was put on hiatus as the country experienced the Great Depression and both WWI and WWII during much of the 1930s and 1940s.

After WWII, the American economy improved and the trend was definitely towards growth. New companies emerged to manufacture specifically-designed recreational vehicles that could accommodate whole classes inside at one time. From 1956 to the end of the 1960s, bookmobiles experienced their most rapid growth both in rural and urban areas. This expansion is largely due to the initiation and amendment to the Library Services Act (LSA). In 1956, the LSA p provided $40,000 to each state that complied with its provisions - most notably the extension of library services to rural areas of populations of 10,000 or less. As a result, a third of federal and state money was spent on bookmobiles, which were said to have “improved service for over 30 million rural people and provided new service for another 1.5 million.” In 1964 Library Services and Construction Act removed the population limits of the previous Library Services Act, meaning that now urban areas were also eligible for funding. The idealism of the 1960s, matched with federal funding provided the backdrop for the “golden age” of the bookmobile.

Unfortunately, the 1970s were the beginning of a steady decline in mobile
services. According to Catherine Alloway, in her book entitled The Book
Stops Here: New Directions in Bookmobile Services, “many idealistic outreach
goals and programs of the morally charged sixties came to a screeching halt
with the financial woes of the seventies, even though gasoline was always a
relatively small portion of any bookmobile’s budget.” The negative influence
would have a lasting impact, wrote VanBrimmer: “The fuel crisis began to ease by 1982, but the cost of fuel remained inflated and the startup costs of bookmobile services became a budget problem to a cost-conscious library community.” This trend has continued into the 21st century as erratic fuel prices, coupled with advances in digital technology, have expedited the bookmobile’s demise. According to the ALA, between 1990 and 2003 the number of bookmobiles in the United States has continued to decrease from 1,102 to 864.


One of the most basic models of the communication process begins with a simple triangle: sender, message, and receiver. Someone has to talk, something has to be said, and someone has to listen. If we map that model onto an overview of information handling, we could say information has to be generated, it has to be transmitted, and it has to be understood. The information age functions on the implicit assumption that information transmission problems are purely technical. After all, optical fiber and satellite delivery systems distribute information across the globe. However, for those without the economic means to afford technological advancements, barriers to access may be cultural, psychological, or physical. For a variety of reasons, bookmobile patrons are non-users of traditional libraries (or even the internet). Therefore, identifying various obstacles to patron access is critical, because outreach to these non-users is the singular mission of bookmobiles.


The elderly and handicapped have been a bookmobile target market since the 1960s. It was in 1960 that the practice began of constructing bookmobiles with wheelchair lifts to serve this community as effortlessly as possible. Even today, the mentally or physically challenged comprise a significant segment of the bookmobile user population. According to Jan Meadows’ 2000 survey of bookmobiles in rural areas, “seniors, school children, and teachers are by far the largest segment of the population served. However, 40 percent of the respondents serve the mentally or physically challenged, and 31 percent serve the home bound.”


The anxiety from the overwhelming size of a traditional library is often alleviated by the bookmobile. Non-users of traditional libraries enjoy the “personal service” aspect of the bookmobile. Some people find it easier to use a small collection than a large library. As Brown states, “a bookmobile does not overawe or confuse them by sheer numbers of books.” In addition, the limited nature of the bookmobile actually creates an aura of excitement analogous to the ice cream truck. Owing to the maxim that we appreciate more that which we have less often and take for granted that which we have all the time, bookmobiles attract patrons through their innovation and design. Anne Valente, a former reference librarian, echoed this sentiment when she recounted her experience of the bookmobile:

In the summertime, when the Craig Elementary School library [in St. Louis] was closed for the season, we drove to the local county branch where my sister and I would often check out 10 books at a time – the maximum limit our library cards would hold. Though I loved the county branch, with its immense card catalog and its bean bag chairs in the children’s section, I loved the bookmobile even more. The bookmobile regularly stationed itself in the Craig School parking lot, just two blocks from my home, and we often walked there on summer mornings before heading to the pool in the afternoons. The trailer’s musty smell and its endless rows of book spines comforted me, and the satisfying stamp of ink within each book’s back cover meant it was mine for at least two weeks.


One of the goals of the bookmobile right from its very inception has been to bridge
cultural barriers. When bookmobiles were mainly for rural patrons, there was also a class barrier that was being breached as well, since the culture of the city was very different from that of the country. As Brown claims, the small scale of bookmobile collections can entice fearful readers - there is no austerity or speaking in hushed voices. As a corollary, the bookmobile breeds a culture where informality prevails. Rural patrons who might hesitate to go into a large, urban branch and ask for a book frequent the bookmobile with little coaxing.

On the other hand, in urban areas, the barrier is not so much distance or isolation as it is time itself. To punctuate this point, Peter Andros constructed a “lunch-hour outreach” to white-collar office workers on Wall Street. While most companies declined to allow their employees to participate for fear of lost productivity, a Dow Jones office of 1,000 employees agreed to the service with favorable results. Not only does this anecdote illustrate the importance of outreach in the most sophisticated of urban setting, it also serves as a powerful critique of post-industrialist theorists who herald the mobility and freedom of the white-collar worker. Even in the information-processing workplace, there are barriers to be breached.


The bookmobile provides the interface between librarian and patron, but it is the content carried by the bookmobile that provides the reason for this meeting in the first place. By examining issues surrounding bookmobile holdings, one can explore the motivations behind both the librarians and the patrons, and perhaps decide whether the stated goals of the bookmobile are truly served by the information that is delivered. As with all collection development, deciding on what types of information to collect is dependent upon assessing the general character and needs of the community. The categories of information to be collected include:

• Historical Development of the community
• Geographical and Transportation Information on growth patterns and
population distribution
• Political and Legal Factions
• Demographic Data (e.g., age characteristics, size, race, and
transience of the population)
• Economic Data
• Social, Cultural, Educational and Recreational Organizations

Bookmobiles are a special case of the public library, though, because of their limited collection capacity and their selective targeting of a small audience. The technical name for bookmobile service is “portable materials distribution” and, according to the most recent study, 50 percent of today’s bookmobiles carry less than 2,500 materials. The limited space of the bookmobile cannot be neglected as a major contributor to collection development. Obviously, different types of books (paperbacks, reference works) tend to take up different amounts of shelf space. For example, while one may be able to efficiently shelve up to 20 juvenile books in a single linear foot of shelf space, only 5 law or medicine books can be shelved in the same space.

But ideally, content decisions should be made on more thoughtful criteria than
shelf space. On the one hand, bookmobile content may often be a reflection of the holdings of the main library. On the other hand, as Brown points out, each bookmobile route may have its own objectives, and each collection should support these objectives. For example, a route which was focused on providing “temporary” service to both children and adults in anticipation of a future branch site might stock: attractive and popular general books for adults (to entice this group and win support for future branch), only the best children’s books (because space is at a premium and school libraries have other books), and no reference materials (due to space restrictions).

One debate worth noting in more detail is the question of the “reading level” that the bookmobile should serve. Since the bookmobile functions as an outreach service to the information poor, the materials circulated will inevitably point to the types of information that these non-traditional libraries users seek. When bookmobiles came along, the fiction question wasn’t even an issue. The librarian of the first bookmobile noted that the demand for “best sellers” was virtually nonexistent, because her patrons were so rural that they did not receive news of such mass market movements. But bookmobiles soon gained a reputation for being vehicles full of “light” reading. According to Vavrek’s study, 65 percent of bookmobile titles are adult fiction. In addition, when asked what they were checking out, 60 percent of bookmobile patrons were checking out leisure reading while only 30 percent were checking out a general knowledge book. As a result, a non-traditional library user’s reading level may make him/her wary of bookmobile service that provides mostly popular fiction.


As was stated earlier, the long history of the bookmobile began to slowly decline in the mid-1970s. The fuel shortage of the early 1970s, combined with spates of government money that allowed the opening of new branch libraries in suburbs and outlying areas, did diminish enthusiasm for the bookmobile, but now, in the 21st century, its use appears to be growing once again. Without question, the “information superhighway” of the 1990s which promised on-demand access to information for anyone who has a phone or cable TV line in their home aided in the demise of the bookmobile. But rather than see this as a threat, some bookmobile programs have attempted to embrace the very technologies that threaten them. After all, integrating cutting edge technology with the concept of a mobile library was an essential element in launching the bookmobile. Simply replacing the horse and wagon of the earliest form of the bookmobile itself is an example of a cutting-edge technology — the automobile — used in a novel way. Furthermore, in the late 1960s, the debate was over what kinds of automated check-out systems would be feasible in a mobile library. The same issues arose then as now: there were questions about the availability of adequate and stable power, there was hesitance at the initial cost of automation, and there was a fear that the equipment would detract from the personalized service so prized by bookmobile librarians and patrons.

Succinctly stated, improvements in technologies that enable mobile online access have turned bookmobiles into mobiles computer labs. The online bookmobile represents a new era of library service no longer limited to computer access by geography. When a 1998 survey in Pennsylvania revealed that many people did not have internet access at home, the author hinted that bookmobiles may be a useful tool in bridging the technology gap. A few years later, the Memphis/Shelby County Public Library developed a completely adaptable, 40-foot-long, computerized “InfoBUS” to bring library services to non-English-speakers in Memphis and Shelby County.

As a fully operational mobile unit focused on computer services, this adapted bookmobile provides training on Windows, Internet use and safety, word processing and other programs, and access to valuable online databases. Moreover, the staff can make specific programs, like computer training, the focus of a particular day’s schedule if needs demand it. InfoBUS meets its goal of serving families who do not have access to a computer or the internet in a number of ways. At any given time, the mobile unit’s collection and programming can include information on becoming an American citizen, ESL materials, foreign-language materials, life skills information, and homework help.

The Digital Divide

Analogous to the information divide between the rural and urban populations at the turn of the 19th century, the digital divide is a growing gap in the 21st century. According to the World Economic Forum’s Annual Report of the Global Digital Divide Initiative, “there remains the stark disparity between two types of world citizens: one empowered by access to information and communication technologies (ICT) to improve their own livelihood; the other stunted and disenfranchised by the lack of access to ICT that provide critical development opportunities." As a global tool, the Digital Opportunity Index (DOI) is a composite index that measures "digital opportunity" or the possibility for citizens of a particular country to benefit from access to information that is "universal, ubiquitous, equitable and affordable." The index analyzes each country within the context of three distinct categories: utilization, infrastructure, and opportunity. In an effort to quantify and address the growing digital divide globally, the index generates and updates a map showing where the most disparity exists, such as the continent of Africa and the country of India. Although the index is intended for global monitoring of the digital divide, the framework could be utilized in mapping out digital disparity nationally. The United States of America is identified as a country with a great amount of digital opportunity. As was stated earlier, outreach is a library public service program initiated and designed to meet the information needs of an unserved or inadequately served target group. Increasingly, the information needs of unserved populations are manifesting themselves in access to information and communication technologies. Thus, bookmobiles wishing to fulfill the outreach goals of public libraries must begin to adapt, rather than fold to emerging technological advancement. Unfortunately, according to Meadows’ 2000 survey, many bookmobiles are still working without the benefit of being online. Only 17 of the 121 services are online, with four more in the process. Nineteen services have laptops that are downloaded with current borrower information each morning, and the information is uploaded into the main system again each evening.

Libraries face a world of new and changing demographics and patron needs. It is imperative that they recognizes the necessity of embracing emerging technologies and incorporate innovative methods to address the diverse needs of library patrons. Implementation of new and best practices and creative strategies is encouraged to address the ever changing needs of the library's patrons. Bookmobiles are an often overlooked but nevertheless critical aspect of outreach service in the 21st century. They exist in both urban and rural areas, but it is in the digitally disadvantaged communities where bookmobiles can make the most difference in terms of addressing access and equity of IT service in the future.


From its inception, the bookmobile has targeted the “information poor” through overcoming cultural, physical, and psychological barriers to access and developing collections around the needs and reading desires of its patrons. Some of the challenges that face bookmobiles in the 21st century have been around since the early 20th century. Many were identified by Brown in her classic work on bookmobiles in the 1960s: materials are limited because of space constraints, time for people to use the bookmobile is limited at each stop, fluctuating fuel costs must be accounted for in budgets, and quantity of juvenile materials often discourages adults. However, in 2009, the bookmobile continues in its outreach role as a pivotal resource for providing information to inadequately served populations.
Transitioning into this new century, described as the information age, we largely function on incorrect assumptions. It is assumed that masses of information are being generated. Certainly, one cannot deny that IT has allowed the generation of knowledge to expand at an increasing rate. However, implicit in that assumption is that such information is being distributed equally at an accelerated rate. Unfortunately, too much information is unavailable, even to the information rich let alone the information poor. Conversations within the IT community center around increasing bandwidth as a solution to information flow without considering whether segments of the population even own a computer; how information channels open and close within varying cultural and physical differences; or how economically information moves from one place to another and why it often cannot move at all. If we are going to take advantage of developments in information access, it is imperative that research continue in measuring the growing digital divide and the ability and resources available to close the gap. One resource that should not be overlooked is the bookmobile.

Whether we are truly in the information age or not, technological developments have lessened the isolation of certain populations (information rich) while increasing the isolation of other populations (information poor). Bookmobiles continue to play a role in bridging these communities by discovering new audiences for library services, providing technological opportunities to these populations, and retaining the person-to-person relationship with the patron. As we move into an age that is more and more virtual, with more and more information to sort our way through, I can only believe that the kinds of services offered by bookmobiles will become more and more important themselves, no matter what form they take.


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ce said...

Is there a Bookcave? A Bookerang? Ya know, the Riddler actually could be a nemesis. You could have a sidekick named Dewey, and fly an airplane made entirely out of paper.

Jus' sayin'.

Josh said...

Noah Wyle has ruined our quest for superhero status with the following awful films:

The Librarian: Quest for the Spear (2004)

The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines (2006)

The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice (2008)

Jill said... is the history of the Washington County Free Library's first bookwagon. Mary Titcomb, the librarian, was aware that those with means and time could come to the main library in town. Those busy on the farm could not. So her efforts were definitely a means to make information available throughout the county.