Libraries That Go Places

By Paulette M. Bochnig

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    Mary Titcomb, a librarian at the Washington County Free Library in Maryland, had a problem. She believed that everyone should have the fun of visiting a library and selecting books to read. Because this was impossible for most farmers and their families, who lived far out in the country, Mary decided that the library would go to them.

    She designed a “traveling library,” a horse-drawn wagon that held 250 books. It made its first run in 1905, driven by the library’s janitor, Joshua Thomas. The new book wagon, with its shelves on the outside and storage cases inside, looked like a cross between a grocer’s delivery cart and the black hearse of the village undertaker. In fact, some of the farmers called it the “dead wagon” and didn’t want to use it at first. But their fear didn’t last long, and soon Joshua was covering sixteen different routes through five hundred square miles of territory and was welcomed by the people that he served. It took him four days to make just one round-trip with the library’s first “bookmobile.”

    The idea of delivering books to farmers and others in remote areas was becoming quite popular, and bookmobiles began to appear throughout the United States and in other parts of the world. These early bookmobiles were not the walk-in type that you see today. They were usually station wagons with shelves that were rolled out the back door for their patrons. Small trucks with sides that were rebuilt to include outside shelves were also used. Library patrons often gave their bookmobiles nicknames.

    One was “Teakettle,” a little truck that steamed in the desert and boiled over on the steep grades of Antelope Valley, California. Another was “Bouncing Betty,” which traveled through whipping sandstorms and heavy snow in the eastern plains of New Mexico.

    Not all bookmobiles had wheels. In the Kentucky and Tennessee mountains, pack mules served as four-legged bookmobiles. And beginning in 1963, books were flown to an Indian reservation in New Mexico because the road conditions there were too hazardous. In Norway, the book boat Abdulla made its first voyage in 1959. Floating libraries have also delivered books by water in Mexico and Sweden. The French National Railways operated a special book train during the 1960s to serve railroad men and their families along a 1500-mile route.

    Today librarians everywhere have adopted Mary Titcomb’s philosophy: “Have books, will travel!”

    Illustrated by Bradley Teare