A bookmobile is an outreach service in the form of a mobile library that serves as a way to bring library services and materials to people who are not able to visit static libraries. Usually, a bookmobile is in the form of a motor vehicle, or prime mover, and a trailer. This type of mobile library is used in order to address the problems of equality of access and service when people, particularly those in rural, remote communities, are not able to visit static libraries. Though the name evokes an image of times past, bookmobiles are still popular all over the world from "Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe" (Ruurs 2005, 5).
The original idea for the bookmobile is credited to Mary Lemist Titcomb who in 1905 filled a Concord Wagon with 2560 books and drove it throughout Washington County in Maryland to deliver books to those in its rural communities. The original beneficiaries of Titcomb’s service were not sure what to think of the book wagon and called it a “book contraption” (Levinson 1991, 43). However, after the first six months of activity, the bookmobile had checked out 1,008 volumes to people who otherwise would not have been able to visit the county's public library. This original bookmobile was in existence until 1910 when, as it was attempting to cross some railroad tracks, it was destroyed by a freight train. Though the driver and horses survived the wreck, Titcomb’s book wagon did not. In 1916, following this original bookmobile, the community of Plainfield, Indiana used a modified touring car, which could carry about 400 books at a time to bring materials to its community. As the idea of the bookmobile spread, the popularity of bookmobiles grew quickly, so that, by the 1930s, there were hundreds of bookmobiles delivering books to people across the United States.
Current Trends in Bookmobiles
Today, bookmobiles come in many different forms and are still a popular method for delivering books to people all over the world. Furthermore, in some communities, they are considered to be “branches on wheels” (Knight 2006, 89). For example, the most modern bookmobiles are in the form of vans, buses, and even diesel trucks, which can carry hundreds of thousands of items for lending. Many not only have shelving for books with lots of room for roaming and tables for workshops, but also they can contain an office for workers, a circulation desk, a kitchen with a sink, a microwave, a coffeemaker, toilets, air conditioning, televisions, sound systems, satellite and wireless technologies for internet access, and an under floor loader that gives disabled patrons physical access to the mobile library. Some current issues that still are of concern for the bookmobile librarians include the risks of operator error, the need for external power sources, public liability issues, workers having to work alone or after dark, coming up with ways to deal with emergency situations as well as getting assistance when injuries happen.
Bookmobiles are becoming more popular in urban areas. They are often used to transport books and other public library materials to assisted living facilities, nursing homes, hospitals and hospice care. (Davis 2001, 3) Many bookmobiles also travel to jails, juvenile detention centers and non-traditional schools.
The Digital Bookmobile
The digital bookmobile is an automotive of some kind that carries “print-on demand and book-binding technology” used to print out books in the public domain for schools and libraries (Reid 2004, 14). The digital bookmobile has its roots in a project founded by the Internet Archive in 2002 called the Internet Book-mobile. The Internet Book-mobile initiative used a van loaded with a satellite dish, laptops, printers, and bookbinding machines to tour U.S. cities in order to bring books to people in rural and/or poor communities. A nonprofit group known as Anywhere Books that wanted to bring this type of service to underdeveloped nations expanded this project in 2003. Their digital bookmobile service prints thousands of books a month for small communities in Uganda and has influenced other countries including Egypt and India to adopt similar projects. As of 2007, the Internet Archives’ digital bookmobile project has an archive of 20,000 public domain books from Shakespeare to Mark Twain, which are available to the public.
Davis, Stephanie, Cynthia Harnish and Janet Wallace. 2001. Bookmobile Service in Indiana: Its History, Its Present, and Its Future. Indiana Libraries: Journal of the Indiana Library Federation 20(1): 1-6.
Drumm, John E. and Frank M. Groom. 1997. The cybermobile: A gateway for public access to network-based information. Computers in Libraries 17 (January): 29-33.
Knight, Robert. 2006. Branches on wheels: Innovations in public library mobile services. APLIS 19 (2): 89-96.
Levinson, N. S. 1991. Takin’ it to the streets: The history of the book wagon. Library Journal 116 (May): 43-5.
Mercaldo, Ann S. 2007. Library book wagon aids outreach program. PNLA Quarterly 71 (3): 18.
Reid, Calvin. 2004. Digital bookmobile prints books for the poor. Publishers Weekly 251 (12): 14.
Ruurs, Margriet. 2005. My librarian is a camel: How books are brought to children around the world. Honesdale: Boyds Mills Press.