A Brief History of Bookmobiles in America
We love bookmobiles. Book bikes, mobile libraries, books-on-wheels—whatever you want to call them, we love ’em all. We want them all. And they happen to have quite the storied history, so let’s take a ride.
One of the first documented bookmobiles dates back to the 19th century: the horse-drawn Warrington Perambulating Library, pictured below. It was used in Britain back in 1858, and likely contributed to the bookmobile craze in America.
Warrington Perambulating Library in 1858, public domain via Wikipedia Commons
A couple decades later, the legendary librarian Mary Lemist Titcomb—who worked at the Washington County Free Library in Maryland—was determined to find a way to get books to the county’s rural denizens.
Thus, in 1905, the first American bookmobile was born when Titcomb started distributing library books with a book wagon, delivering fresh reads to faraway towns.
Washington County Free Library via Western Maryland Regional Library
Washington County Free Library via Western Maryland’s Historical Library
Another early female pioneer was librarian Sarah Byrd Askew, who was hired by the New Jersey Public Library Commission to help spread the concept of the modern library practice to small towns. In 1906, she initiated “traveling libraries” by sending shipments of books to community buildings in rural areas, and in 1920, she designed a Model-T book truck to and drove out to small counties who had never had a library service before.
County Library Bookmobile, ca. 1920-30s via Flickr
“Every Tuesday 2:30 P.M.” Public Library Book Wagon Stop, 1930 via Multnomah County Library
Clark County Ohio Bookmobile, 1936 via Flickr
Multnomah County Library Rural Service bookmobile, 1936 via Flickr
In the 1940s, federal funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) helped support even more bookmobiles, like the one below for the Carnegie Library.
The Carnegie Library Bookmobile, ca. 1940s
A decade or so later, The Library Services Act (LSA) was passed by Congress in 1956 under Eisenhower—the goal was to promote the development of public libraries in rural areas with more funding, undoubtedly leading to a wider expansion of bookmobiles (and the Pack Horse Library Project, but we’ll save that for another day).
Kern County Library: Traveling Branch, ca. 1950s
Lincoln County Public Library Bookmobile, 1952 via Wikipedia Commons
Boston Public Library Bookmobile, ca. 1950-60s via Flickr
Inside Los Angeles Public Library’s Bookmobile, ca. 1955 via Los Angeles Public Library
Los Angeles Public Library’s Little Toot, ca. 1956 via Los Angeles Public Library
Orange County Public Library Bookmobile circa 1965, via Orange County Archives
Eisenhower Public Library Bookmobile, 1972 via Wikipedia Commons
The Whole World Bookmobile, c. 1973 via San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
As time went on, the boom of the bookmobiles slowed considerably, but there are still many in operation today—you can find anything from modest book bikes to RV-sized trailers. There’s even a National Bookmobile Day each year in April, on Wednesday during National Library Week.
The rich history of bookmobiles is our favorite kind of book lover fodder, and we are so excited to have a bike of our own: Specs! You can follow along on Twitter and Instagram at @specsbookbike—you’ll never know where it’ll turn up next.
Do you have any bookmobile memories? Let us know in the comments!
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