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The Tiniest Libraries for the Most Remote Patrons

by on July 8, 2016

I’m fascinated by highly specialized libraries. These are usually small, very well curated, and often noncirculating. One example of a beautiful specialized space is the San Francisco Airport’s Aviation Museum and Library. I can’t say I have a need for airline-themed books, model plane magazines from the ’60s, or ephemera like their collection of in-flight sick bags, but I’m glad all that’s there! They serve a variety of research and niche needs in a gorgeous setting. There are also libraries which are special not because of what they carry as much as who they serve, like the library system discussed in “The Most Precious Cargo for Lighthouses Across America was a Traveling Library,” by Atlas Obscura’s Natalie Zarrelli. She writes about the steamer trunk libraries that were ported along the US seaboards for a very small and select group of patrons: lighthouse residents.

Lighthouse keepers and their families often lived in extreme isolation in highly unpastoral areas like rocky outcroppings or barren islands. They didn’t have many options in terms of leisure, and they certainly couldn’t pop into to a local bookstore. Access to entertainment was further hampered because lighthouse keepers usually weren’t paid handsomely for their labors. Because of their lack of access to entertainment and, well, anything else, lighthouse keepers as a group could greatly benefit from a circulating library collection. The only problem was that they were geographically excluded from access to local libraries. However, lighthouse keepers did important work. The least the librarians and library groups of the era could do was provide them with some entertaining books.

As Zarrelli explains, “Portable lighthouse libraries, distributed across the United States in the 19th century, were a common but important part of life for families living under the constant work and near-isolation of the lighthouse watch.”[1] These collections were packed inside portable, sturdy boxes, and the contents were zealously guarded by the librarians. I dare say more books have gone missing from my libraries than from a lighthouse box, and I’m pretty sure lighthouse keepers couldn’t dodge their fines by donating a can of soup. After a box made its way around one area of lighthouses, it would be switched with a box from a different area. Eventually, the boxes would rotate around the country’s coast lines.

During my tenure as an MLIS student, I studied a few mobile libraries that surpass the traditional Book Mobiles. Biblioburro, a traveling library run by the very dedicated Luis Soriano that’s packed and transported on the back of his two Colombian donkeys, was all the rage on discussion boards then, and I hope it still is. A more recent example would be Raul Lemesoff’s Weapons of Mass Instruction, a Ford Falcon modified into a library and tank that carries about nine hundred books through the streets of Buenos Aires. Though its collection is limited, it makes up for it with what I believe can only legally be described as “sheer awesomeness.”

These traveling librarians are making good on both patrons’ needs and the meta-library mission. If the second Law of Library Science is “every reader to their book,” these small libraries are certainly working to fill a need that the largest and most impressive central libraries in the world can’t. There are readers in distant and hard to get to places that don’t have access to a library, interlibrary loan system, or even a strong Internet signal and the technology to download e-books. If these patrons are to have books then those books have to be taken to them, and why shouldn’t we, like the lighthouse librarians of yore, figure out a way to do that? I’m sure we’re capable, and I’m sure the patrons are waiting.

[1] Natalie Zarrelli, “The Most Precious Cargo for Lighthouses Across America was a Traveling Library,” Atlas Obscura, February 8, 2016.

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