Bookmobiles have always held a special place in my heart. As a kid, the third Thursday of every month was a joyous occasion for me because that was the day the bookmobile visited the elementary school in my neighborhood. On these Thursdays, beginning from the time I awoke, to the time I heard the powerful engine of the bookmobile, I eagerly gathered my previously borrowed items—constantly stealing anxious glances out the living room windows to ensure I had not missed this treasured visit from these mobile librarians—and mentally prepared my young mind for the upcoming arrival. Every item gathered was meticulously splayed out on the dining room table, and like an archaeologist unearthing rare artifacts, I examined each of the books previously borrowed to decide if I was ready to let it go back to the collection in order for it to be discovered by another reader. (More often than naught, I solicited the help of my mother when making these decisions as she was the one that read these chosen stories aloud before bedtime.) Decisions made, I placed the selected books with affectionate care into my tote bag. Before too long, the song of the bookmobile’s engine climbing the small hill on my street reverberated between the houses. It was only a matter of time before my mother would give me the look that said I could go out and wave to the driver of this magical machine. Once the bookmobile was parked, leveled, electricity connected from the charger on the wooden light pole, and the stairs descended from the underbelly of this wheeled house of knowledge, did my mother take my little hand and walk me across the street to visit the librarians. Thinking about this moment now, excitement still wells in my chest, a smile crosses my face, and the anticipation of what will be discovered on the shelves resonates in my mind.
Fast forward thirty years. The magic of the bookmobile remains. But the magic has evolved. Whereas the bookmobile of my youth was a place for my imagination to run amok (and today’s bookmobiles still provide this outlet for all), bookmobiles today have changed the way a library connects to the people it serves. Bookmobiles today serve a more effectual purpose than before—but that is not to say bookmobiles of my youth were ineffectual. As a valued part of any library’s arsenal, bookmobiles today help to disseminate information, erase barriers, and equalize opportunity for all patrons—much like in the past, only in different guises today. Bookmobiles today have spawned other mobile outreach vehicles: vans, buses, campers, bicycles, and scooters; and it is within all these different vehicles that a new type of outreach has developed.
As the Director of a library that serves a population of almost 170,000 people, in a county the size of Connecticut, outreach to our rural and remote patrons is a constant focus and priority. While 90% of the population has immediate access to the library, 10% of the county population depends on the library’s outreach services to remain connected. It is within this population of 10% that I have witnessed how pivotal and transformative bookmobiles and mobile outreach services can be for a community. (NOTE: the Billings Public Library (BPL) uses a Pedal-Powered Bike Library, and Senior Outreach Van within the city limits. The bookmobile serves both city and rural patrons.)
To fully list all the reasons and ways a library utilizes outreach to better serve a population is beyond the scope of this post. But a small sampling illustrates the importance and relevance of bookmobiles (and their mobile offspring), and how these different entities help create community, bridge technology gaps, reinforce education, and create connections:
- Bookmobiles and mobile outreach services provide a place for rural or remote communities to gather. People enjoy coming together to commune. By acting as a place for human connection, bookmobiles proffer a community to connect with each other, share stories, and be a social gathering place. This is especially important in rural, isolated places where the opportunity to connect with others is limited.
- Bookmobiles and mobile outreach services provide rural and remote patrons with the same one-on-one services offered in brick and mortar libraries. Even with the advent of the Internet, the immense popularity of e-books and online library services, human interaction and instruction remains the greatest form of customer service. The human animal yearns for physical connection over digital abstraction.
- Bookmobiles and mobile outreach services provide access to technology. In many rural or impoverished communities, technology may be spotty, outdated, or even nonexistent. Bookmobiles and mobile outreach services provide access to technology in the form of hardware, hotspots, Wi-Fi, iPads, laptops, and/or software to name a few. Recently, Patti, the BPL’s Bookmobile Librarian, shared a story of how a child, who had recently received a robot for his birthday, used the bookmobile’s laptop computer to update the robot’s software because the computer he had at home was unable to support the robot’s software.
- Bookmobiles and mobile outreach services help to supplement rural schools through its collection, technology, personnel expertise, and services. Many rural schools have a limited library. In some cases, rural schools served by the BPL do not have a school librarian or are severely hampered by budget restrictions. Bookmobiles and mobile outreach services allow for these rural schools to use the public library’s collection to enhance education, spread the joy or reading, increase access and exposure to technology, and install the love of life-long learning.
- Bookmobiles and mobile outreach services provide access to information about the plethora of other aspects and services a library provides to a community. Information about adult programs, children’s programs, teen programs, and special events is easily shared to those without access to the Internet or a library’s website. Additionally, in some cases, programming conducted at the brick and mortar library can be altered in order to be shared at these rural or remote locations.
- Bookmobiles and mobile outreach services have access to the library’s entire collection of resources. Although a bookmobile or mobile outreach service vehicle may be limited to the number of titles on hand, or the type of technology equipped on the vehicle, they have the capacity to bring these resources to rural or remote patrons. By developing relationships with rural or remote patrons, and by understanding the needs of these patrons, bookmobiles and mobile outreach services can customize or curate specific collections for patrons.
- Bookmobiles and mobile outreach services create relationships and promote inclusivity. Patrons who are unable to access a brick and mortar library can sometimes feel as if they are excluded from library services. By creating relationships, and thus striving for inclusivity, libraries are able to better understand the needs of a rural population, incorporate their voice within strategic planning, increase program development, increase access and exposure to technology, and ensure quality service to all.
Bookmobiles and mobile outreach services strive to make connections between the library, the community, and the patrons. As technology continues to advance, bookmobiles and mobile libraries will continue to develop new services, incorporate new methods for reaching patrons, and enhance engagement all with the goal of providing access to every woman, man, and child regardless of social station, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education level or any other socially constructed label. The future of mobile outreach is promising, and I am excited for the next boy or girl to discover this incredible mode of public service.