Book Love

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.

WarringtonPerambulatingLibrary

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.

Early mobile library in Washington

Washington County Free Library via Western Maryland Regional Library

 

Washington County Free 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.

Bookmobile, County Library, Rural Service, Children, 1920/30s

County Library Bookmobile, ca. 1920-30s via Flickr

 

Multnomah County Library Follow Book wagon stop, 1930

“Every Tuesday 2:30 P.M.” Public Library Book Wagon Stop, 1930 via Multnomah County Library

 

Clark County Ohio Bookmobile

Clark County Ohio Bookmobile, 1936 via Flickr

 

Multnomah County Library: Bookmobile, 1936 Summer rural service

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.

Carnegie Library Bookmobile

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

Kern County Library: Traveling Branch, ca. 1950s

 

Lincoln County Public Library Bookmobile, Exterior, Brookhaven, Mississippi. Date 12 January 1952

Lincoln County Public Library Bookmobile, 1952 via Wikipedia Commons

 

Boston Public Library bookmobile

Boston Public Library Bookmobile, ca. 1950-60s via Flickr

 

Inside Los Angeles Public Library's Bookmobile, ca. 1955 via Los Angeles Public Library

Inside Los Angeles Public Library’s Bookmobile, ca. 1955 via Los Angeles Public Library

 

"Little Toot", Los Angeles Public Library Bookmobile school visit

Los Angeles Public Library’s Little Toot, ca. 1956 via Los Angeles Public Library

 

Orange County Bookmobile

Orange County Public Library Bookmobile circa 1965, via Orange County Archives

 

Eisenhower Public Library District

Eisenhower Public Library Bookmobile, 1972 via Wikipedia Commons

 

The Whole World Bookmobile

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.

Specs the Book Bike

Do you have any bookmobile memories? Let us know in the comments!

 

Jenna Homen

Jenna Homen

Content and Community Manager at Chronicle Books. When she's logged off, she can be found painting, cooking, camping, or petting her dog Harley. You can follow her on Twitter at @jn_na.
Jenna Homen

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15 Comments

  • Mary Beth Sammons April 11, 2018 at 4:14 pm

    I loved this story! Not the same, but I love seeing these tiny libraries on people’s yards too! Though I’ve read of late libraries aren’t too keen on them.

    https://littlefreelibrary.org/

    Reply

  • Kathleen A Birmingham April 12, 2018 at 9:27 am

    The summer I was 10, a bookmobile would park in the parking lot of the nearby high school. A boon for this bookworm who read more than she ate, slept, or did anything else. But with six siblings, three under the age of three, library visits were few and far between. The only problem for me was I could only check out two books per week. I learned to pick the thickest books possible. I read “Gone With the Wind” and “Jane Eyre” that summer as a result. Not sure how much I retained, but bringing home so many word friends kept me going until the following week when I would take my bicycle up to that parking lot and exchange those two treasures for two more.

    Reply

  • Marie Etzler April 23, 2018 at 12:10 pm

    What a great article and story. I had no idea there is a Bookmobile Day! I loved the bookmobile that came to our neighborhood when I was a child. My mother loves to read and took my brothers and sisters and I to the bookmobile every week. It was a lifesaver in the summer because we didn’t have a lot of money. None of us went to football or ballet lessons or anything like that, so the library was a great resource for us. We all talk about it even to this day! I remember kneeling down and sitting to comb through books and carefully select as many as we were allowed to check out. They had to last all week, but I often read them right away.

    Reply

  • Nancy April 27, 2018 at 5:27 pm

    Thank you for this article. What a wonderful history of the bookmobile. Great to read of the many unsung people who aided this venture. Good to know Congress contributed during the Eisenhower era.

    Reply

  • Rachel April 27, 2018 at 6:59 pm

    Thank you for this history! I’ve always adored bookmobiles and thought I would grow up to be a traveling librarian. When my grandma was in assisted living and could no longer volunteer at the village Library, the bookmobile brought the world to her. Your post brought back lovely memories as well as new learning.

    Reply

  • Jessica Wiswall-Quinette April 28, 2018 at 3:45 am

    We still have a bookmobile here in Pawtucket, RI! It always makes me so happy when I see it

    Reply

  • Edward Lathrope April 28, 2018 at 7:47 am

    My mother, Mary Lathrope, drove the Franklin County Kentucky Bookmobile in 1954.

    Reply

  • Leigh Wood April 28, 2018 at 11:16 am

    I love libraries, and as a child depended on bookmobiles. I would take out the maximum number of books allowed and read them all, (sometimes to the detriment of my school work). My family moved often due to my father’s job. My friends were often the characters in the books I borrowed.

    Reply

  • Karl Schrom April 28, 2018 at 5:40 pm

    I grew up close to many libraries, and never visited a bookmobile. But I loved them because of a book I read when I was about 9 (found in my public library). That was Christopher Morley’s story “Parnassus on Wheels”, probably dating from the 20s or 30s. It created a mystique in me that is still a little bit there!

    Reply

  • Carly Emme April 30, 2018 at 4:54 pm

    We moved around a lot when I was a child, but from 4th grade until 8th grade, we lived in a town called Tecumseh, Ontario. I can still remember the days that the bookmobile rolled in, and how exciting it was! The smell of the books, and the joy of climbing the stairs onto a mini bus holding so many books! I’m ever thankful that my mom made sure that even though we didn’t have a lot of money, that we ALWAYS had books to read and borrow from the public library. Thank you for this story – it’s such a joy to see all of these old photos and remember what fun it was visiting the Bookmobile!

    Reply

  • SUZANNE May 2, 2018 at 8:08 pm

    The Orange County Library Bookmobile was the first I’d ever known. The photo of it brought good memories. In 1967, my husband was stationed far from any town and we lived in the El Toro Marine Air Station base housing in Orange County, CA. The bookmobile saved my lonely life when I could take my three children, ages 1, 5, and 6 for books. We looked forward to the twice a month arrival at the edge of housing. That began my appreciation of book series and I requested sequels as the months moved more swiftly with reading. The kids loved the whole idea of going to a “bus” to get books.

    Reply

  • Jill Telford May 7, 2018 at 7:24 pm

    I love books and am in the process of having a little library to share my love of books with my community. Thanks for this insightful post. It brought such an awesome historical perspective.

    Reply

  • Gabby Kann May 15, 2018 at 7:59 am

    Loved this article! When my son was 2, we lived in Hermantown, MN, (right outside of Duluth) and they still had a bookmobile and that was in 1997! I wonder if it is still running today! Any updates on bookmobiles that are still around today would be great.

    Thanks again for this article!

    Reply

  • Lucy Forsten May 16, 2018 at 4:42 am

    I love this history, and I’m just old enough to remember some book bus that was green and still around in the 80’s in Houston. AND I think leaving out any information on the racial piece of this story is an oversight. It seems very clear the images are segregated and I wonder if the black families in these images had access to regular libraries, particularly in this time period. An opportunity, perhaps, to sing the praises of book mobiles, and also for us to recognize our history. Three cheers to expanding literacy and love of literature for all! -L

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