Bookmobiles!

Bookmobiles in America: An Illustrated History by Orty Ortwein. Createspace, 2015. 9781514813171.

Bookmobiles in America definitely looks self-published: the pictures are black and white and sometimes low resolution, and there is the occasional misspelling (though let’s be honest: too many books from mainstream publishers have them, too). But the research is top notch, the writing is enthusiastic, and the book is much-needed. Ortwein gathered information from libraries all over America and delved into historic documents to tell a fascinating story.

There’s a section on early mobile libraries, which were often small wooden cabinets moved from city to city and left in non-library buildings. There’s a page on the man who may have been the first bookmobile driver: John Sanderson of the Perambulating Library of Mealsgate, England, who rotated mobile collections between cities using a kind of wheelbarrow. (There’s a picture and it’s great.) The earliest American bookmobiles were horse-drawn When automobiles and trucks were first used, the drivers were often library janitors. Custom-built bookmobiles followed. Military mobile libraries during World War II increased not only reading among the soldiers and sailors but support for libraries after the war.

Politics, weather, geography, money, and even the fuel shortages of the 1970s influenced the look and use of bookmobiles from state to state. Mobile library service was even shaped by segregation, a topic too rarely covered in library history. The WPA library projects of the thirties initially tried not to rock the boat over race. Later they collaborated with black philanthropic societies to fund depository collections and bookmobiles for black communities. Even then, the WPA estimated that there were two million people without access in areas served by whites-only libraries. Some of libraries that did serve blacks had separate bookmobiles for their black and white patrons.

The pictures are just delightful and make the book worth picking up even if you don’t read the history. There are historic bookmobiles galore, including boats, planes, streetcars, and converted military vehicles. But I recommend you do read the text. Don’t miss the story of a bookmobile in rural Montana in the 1950s that showed movies at a local tavern (chosen because they had electricity) called the Dirty Shame, Jr!

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