A New York Public Library bookmobile, circa 1910–1920
These slow sticky days of summer, it seems like a good time to take our reading outside and consider the life of … the bookmobile!
Adventurous indies are rediscovering bookmobiles as a way to spread their riches in the community-based spirit that has been at the heart of the current indie revival. Contemporary indie bookmobiles like Parnassus on Wheels’ “Peggy” in Nashville and Charlston’s Itinerant Literate site food trucks as an inspiration, navigating their wares to street fairs, farmers’ markets, and festivals, as well as “places with long brunch lines.” (Peggy, or Pegasus, is named for the horse who draws a book cart about in Christopher Morley’s wacky 1917 novel Parnassus on Wheels.) Parnassus’s Grace Wright mentioned to The New York Times on the occasion of Peggy’s launch that a colorful bookmobile advocates for its home bookstore even when it’s on the move. The Times also offered Decatur’s Little Shop of Stories, which received a grant from the author James Patterson to convert a used school bus into a bookmobile, and Fifth Dimension Books, a mobile-only sci-fi and fantasy bookstore in Austin, Texas, by way of example. The Times tied the bookmobile phenomenon to the ongoing vitality of independent bookselling. A Seventh-Day-Adventist bookstore in Spokane has found that adopting a bookmobile has helped them find new audiences. Among publishers, Penguin Random House has its own book truck and cart, designed to look like a Penguin classic with wheels, that, among other adventures, has traced the route of Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl road novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Follow these trucks on social media to see when they’re coming near you.
It turns out, though, that the bookmobile has a legacy of its own that stretches back far past the contemporary foodie phenomenon and into the roots of bookselling and libraries themselves. It’s an inherent contradiction of the enterprise that bookstores and libraries gather together in one place collections that represent the bounty of the written word, while at the same time striving to spread those riches outward. In the nineteenth century early travelling bookstore-libraries, pulled by mules and then driven by motorcars, aimed to diffuse learning by selling boxed libraries (like Harper’s “American School Library,” of which the Smithsonian has the only surviving set, packaged for sale on the American frontier, and the Parmalee Library Company, which offered cheaply printed collections in a box to be shared among neighboring towns) or collections put together by philanthropists and learning societies, like the Warrington Mechanics Institute, which provided secular education to working people in England’s industrial north. Their publicly funded, horse-drawn “Perambulating Library” loaned more than twelve thousand books during its first year of operation. The United States Lighthouse Service distributed “library boxes” that switched from lighthouse to lighthouse to change up the books available to the isolated families maintaining them.
The Seaboard Airline Railway Free Traveling Library was founded by Sally Heard, in Middleton, Georgia, in 1898, after the death of her small bookish son. She began to loan out his books to the neighboring children and found
the response was far greater than she had anticipated. Children and adults were hungry for books and soon exhausted Sally Heard’s collection as well as the books [she] was able to gather from her friends. People still came however, and Sally Heard resolved to do all in her power to see that not only her own neighbors but rural people elsewhere had access to books and reading.
At this point Everitte St. John, Vice-President of the Seaboard Airline Railway, stepped in and offered the services of the railway in distributing books all along its routes. By 1912, 18,000 books and 38,000 magazines were being borrowed through the Seaboard Airline Railway Free Traveling Library by readers in six states. By the turn of the century many public library systems were using travelling libraries to serve rural areas and remote readers.
The mobile library got a fresh boost at the time of the Depression and its burst of federal attention toward impoverished rural and industrial communities. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) funded mobile libraries for its work sites (“a waterproof box with lock and key holding about 60 books was placed next to each tool box”). The TVA chairperson lobbied the states to maintain the libraries when the projects wrapped up. The Civilian Conservation Corps’ (CCC’s) camps were accompanied by libraries (“certain publications, including The New Republic and The Nation, were banned from camps because they were considered subversive”), and the Work Projects Administration (WPA) employed 38,324 full-time workers on library and book repair projects. Nationwide, the WPA supplied approximately 150 counties with bookmobile equipment to reach remote and underserved populations; the entire WPA program in South Carolina was dedicated to bookmobiles. A WPA “Pack Horse Library” reached one hundred thousand people in Appalachia, hiring “book women” for around $28 a month to deliver books to remote communities on their own horses or mules, or animals borrowed from local farmers. A statewide National Youth Administration (NYA) project in Illinois operated five bookmobiles serving rural schools, maintained six hospital library units, and operated twenty-five book-mending units, among other book-related projects.
In 1937 the African-American sorority Delta Sigma Theta launched an initiative to create “traveling library” to address black readers’ lack of access to public libraries and quality books in the segregated South. Each chapter of the sorority contributed $2.50 to purchase ten books. A 1950 story in Harlem’s Amsterdam News celebrated the ribbon-cutting of a Delta bookmobile, “against the enchanting backdrop of Chatham Walk in Hotel Chatham.” Mollie Huston Lee, supervisor of the Negro Public Libraries of North Carolina, said on the occasion that
any librarian working in rural areas must be a salesman, a teacher, a psychiatrist, a nurse, or counselor to host or farm people. She might have to arrange the sale of a pig, or show a farmer that irons around the trunk of a fruit tree will not keep bugs away … for these efforts the grateful people will laden her with vegetables and flowers.
(In 1939, African-American protesters staged one of the first sit-ins in a library, refusing to leave the Barrett Branch of the Alexandria, Virginia, library until they were provided with library cards. They were arrested, but a judge found in their favor that “there were no legal grounds for refusing the plaintiff or any other bona fide citizen the use of the library.” Alexandra created a “colored branch” rather than give black Alexandrians access to the existing library.) In 1951, the American Library Association (ALA) presented its Letter Award to Delta Sigma Theta for its bookmobile program. [To be continued!]
The Delta Sigma Theta Bookmobile in action, via the ALA
Many thanks to the History of Libraries web site, by Annette Lamb, for the University of Indiana-Indianapolis Department of Library & Information Science, for a roadmap (so to speak) of this history. Visit for many great pictures and more travelling library stories!
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Opening image: “Near the beach at Eltingville, Staten Island,” by Percy Loomis Sperr. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library