A Brief History of Bookmobiles

Hi folks, Winnie Griggs here.
Lately I’ve noticed several photos of early bookmobiles circulating on Facebook and it got me to wondering about the history of these literary vehicles. So of course I had to dive in and do a bit of research. Here is a little taste of what I discovered.

  • Bookmobiles have been around since the 1850s. It was during this period that the Perambulating Library made its appearance in the UK.
  • The US was a bit slower to implement this service. In 1893 Melvil Dewey led the effort to implement something called Travelling Collections. By 1899 there were 2500 of these travelling collections across the country.
  • In 1903 Wisconsin began using wagons to deliver books to schools.
  • It wasn’t until 1905 that the first US library, The Washington County Free Library, specifically designed a wagon to be used as a bookmobile. This effort was headed by Mary Titcomb who patterned it after the service in the UK.  The wagon was driven by the library janitor, Joshua Thomas.
  • 1912  saw the introduction of the first motorized vehicles, allowing the libraries to greatly expand their range of service.
  • The term bookmobile was first used in January of 1929.
  • The use of vehicles was greatly curtailed during the Great Depression, but that did not shut down the system. For example, women used pack horses in Kentucky, and in Mississippi a librarian used a house boat to provide mobile library services.
  • During the following years the number of bookmobiles in the country fluctuated as factors like wartime, the cost of fuel, and economic upswings and downturns impacted finances and materials.
  • The Everett County Public Library’s bookmobile (called Pegasus after the mythological flying horse) was purchased in 1924, making it the first bookmobile in Washington State. It was retired in 1950, then restored in the 1990s, making it the oldest still-operational bookmobile.
  • The state with the most bookmobiles is Kentucky.

Fun facts from around the world:

  • Zimbabwe utilizes a donkey-draw bookmobile that, in addition to providing books, also provides some technology services.
  • Kenya has the Camel Library Service with a collection of over 7000 books
  • Thailand has elephant-drawn libraries
  • Some coastal communities in Norway have their library needs met by itinerant ships

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As for me, I have very fond memories of bookmobiles. The first elementary school I attended didn’t have a library so the bookmobile came by every other week. It was always a treat to step inside and see so many books in one place. And since I have always LOVED books and reading, it was even more magical to pick out one to take home with me.

What about you? Do you have any personal experience with a bookmobile?And what information in the post above did you find most surprising?

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author or email her at winnie@winniegriggs.com.

32 thoughts on “A Brief History of Bookmobiles”

  1. I remember the book mobile coming to my elementary school and I loved it I just used to think it AWESOME to be one there with all those wonderful books. What I found surprising and informative was how long back Book mobiles started.

  2. Good morning! I’ve never seen a book mobile before! I’ve always loved the idea though! I can just imagine the excitement of people of any age seeing the book mobile coming!! I loved this blog! I live in a tiny rural community and I’ve been considering putting up a book exchange box. I live on a property that belonged to my grandparents and they had a country store/gas station so I have a good pull over area that was the store front. As i typed this it made me think of the Ag department at our school. I’m sure if I bought the supplies I could get the Ag teacher to build it as a project and the art department to decorate it and put the words Book Exchange on it! Sounds like an awesome idea to me.

  3. I have never heard of a bookmobile until now. It sounds like such a great way to get books around to people who can’t usually get to a store or library.

    • Hi Janine. I’m so glad I was able to introduce you to this wonderful aspect of the library program. And yes, it has been a very valued service to bookworms who don’t have ready access to a standard library.

  4. I think bookmobiles are wonderful. I never was in one but a group I belong to bought two for native American children. We have had a positive response to them and hope to supply more.

  5. I love your post, Winnie! Thank you for sharing! I never had the pleasure of being around a bookmobile but I would have loved it.

  6. I didn’t know that Kentucky had the most bookmobiles although I did know our local Library had one. My son is the IT at the library and he said they just bought a new one. Our bookmobile will go to some of the older peoples homes and deliver books to them, when they can get out to go to the bookmobile themself and yes I live in Kentucky.

    • Hi Quilt Lady! How fun that your son works in IT for the library system. I worked in corporate IT for many, many years – coupling it with a library would have been my perfect job.

  7. Growing up, my schools had libraries that I used regularly but living in a rural area we also had bookmobiles which I used and thoroughly enjoyed. For some reason I know more about the history of UK bookmobiles than those in the US. It was encouraging to read your post about Kentucky having the most bookmobiles. It also made me curious about other states (the researcher in me too) and I found…

    1950 603 (highest states are North Carolina at 87, Missouri at 48, Ohio at 47)

    1989 921 (highest states are Kentucky at 109, North Carolina at 51, Ohio at 50)

    1991 1,125 (highest states are Kentucky at 110 and California at 67)

    2014 659 (highest states are Kentucky at 75 and California/Ohio at 53)

    Kentucky, Ohio and California usually have the top numbers. The highest year for bookmobiles nationally was 1991, but we’ve steadily decreased in numbers since then, and now we’re back to 1950 levels in the 600s. If you’re interested like I was, here are the numbers from the American Library Association by year: http://www.ala.org/tools/research/librarystats/public/bookmobiles/bookmobilesu

    Here’s a website by state that shows Hawaii, Alaska, DC, and Oklahoma at the bottom of the bookmobile scale: http://www.statemaster.com/graph/edu_pub_lib_num_of_boo-education-public-libraries-number-bookmobiles

    Thanks, Winnie, for the interesting post that obviously appealed to my bookaholic and researcher leanings! 🙂

  8. I loved reading about the history of the bookmobiles!! I grew up back in the mountains in Western NC. We only had the school library to get our books. There were only 150 total students and faculty in this school. The bookmobile never came to Barnardsville because we were to far away for them to travel. When my son started school in 1992 there still weren’t any bookmobiles but a few years later when my daughter started we started seeing the sweet little bookmobile sitting in front of our tiny school. Even after several years it stopped coming because of funding. But now it’s back.
    So I was born in 1962 and I finally walked into a bookmobile in 1998 with my daughter. Oh it was the best feeling!!!
    I loved all the interesting facts especially the fun facts.

  9. Hi Winnie, what an interesting post. We actually had a bookmobile in my hometown till the mid 1980s. It used to park at the end of the street. I miss it.

    Some of my neighbors now have little free libraries in front of their houses. These are miniature houses on a post filled with books. The idea is to take a book and leave a book. It’s fun to walk around the neighborhood and check out these little libraries. If anyone’s interested in hosting a library, here’s the website: http://littlefreelibrary.org/

    • Hi Margaret. I’ve seen some of those little free libraries in my travels and I think they are a fabulous idea! How fun to imagine where some of those books will end up

  10. Very interesting. I remember in grade school during the summer the bookmobile would park almost across the street from my house. Heaven!

  11. There’s a bookmobile of sorts in our area which delivers books to the elderly. They call it the silvermobile.

  12. Hi Winnie!
    This was a fun post! I never have seen a book mobile — never really thought about them. So it was fun to read about something totally new to me –and about books too!

  13. Lincoln Nebraska has 5 libraries and a bookmobile fun to see the inside of one. Some counties still have them some do not. But people would not get to read as much if it wasn’t for the bookmobiles.

  14. I am at least a little familiar with most of the US information. I am not really surprised but pleased that so many countries have used the resources they have to get books toothier people the best way they can. There are only 2 bookmobiles left in Tennessee, one of them in Nashville. The one we had in this area was parked about 10 years ago. Too bad because it served areas quite a distance from the one library in each county. Early in the last century there were librarians on horseback delivering books up in the mountains just like in Kentucky.

  15. Hi Winnie. I am from Kentucky, the state with the most bookmobiles, I am also a former bookmobile librarian! When I was hired to work part-time at our public library, it was with the thought that I would drive the bookmobile when the current librarian retired. After two years, it was decided that I would work full-time in the library. I met many wonderful people and they were always so appreciative of my visits but it was the children who loved it the best. That “big blue bus” brought them a world of enjoyment!
    Thanks for a great post!

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