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Derek Attig on the history of bookmobiles

I’m at a Harvard Library talk by Derek Attig [twitter: @bookmobility], a Ph.D. at candidate U. of Illinois Champaign/Urbana: “Here Comes the Bookmobile: How Mobile Libraries Made America.” (Bold title!) (Thank you, Office for Scholarly Communication and the Library Test Kitchen class!)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

In 1905 in Washington County Maryland, a woman commissioned a horse and carriage to reach far-flung areas. Five years later, the carriage was hit by a train. (The horses were fine.) She replaced it with a gas-powered vehicle. So, you can tell the story of the bookmobile as a story about machines. But a better way would be to tell it as a story of people and what they thought books could do if they put them on wheels: they thought if you moved books through space, you could make a community. The maps of book mobile routes looks like a network. “Filling space with books and linking the county together with its presence.” “This dream of connection was so powerful that it shaped how children imagined bookmobiles.” Derek shows a kid’s drawing from the 1930s, and it too looks like a community connected by a network.

It didn’t always work out that way, he says. Book mobiles were used to bring books to African Americans so that African Americans wouldn’t come to libraries. Still, the dream of networked community drove bookmobiles forward.

Derek is going to focus on three moments, he says: the birth of book mobiles in the 1890s, the role of them in the Cold War in the 1950s, and the supposed current death of book mobiles.

“Libraries must be mobilized. Books must travel more,” said Melvil Dewey. That began in earnest in the 1890s, especially in rural states with populist governments. Traveling libraries took books from a central repository and shipped them. Post Offices, general stores, and living rooms became ad hoc libraries. After a set time, the books would be shipped back. This gave a constantly refreshed stream.

Women played an enormous role in the traveling library movement. Many began as the projects of women’s clubs. They claimed this was an extension of their domestic duties, e.g., tempering male children.

Most of Derek’s work has been on the Kansas traveling library, founded in 1898, by the suffragette Mary Brown Johnston [correct?]. A woman lived on a ranch wanted to know if she could join the library. MBJ said that the traveling library needed a library club to bring he books to. Presley [lost track of who that is] says that she’s made a “circuit of our district” and found people willing to form an “association.” Derek points out the importance of libraries establishing circuits and associations. “Wherever the traveling library system is introduced, it makes friends with the people,” said [someone], and says Derek, makes friends among people.

“By the 1950s, book mobiles were at the height of their iconic power.” Children’s books and romance novels were written about them. And they were tools of diplomacy. In 1959, a book mobile from Delmar NY was lowered into a Moscow Park as part of a US exhibition. It was a huge hit. Thousands of Russians toured it. In fact, thousands of them — 75% of them — were stolen. The ALA and publishers shipped thousands more books.

In the 1960s there were US book mobiles in Mexico City, Libya, Jakarta, and more, but the largest number were in West Germany. 24 book mobiles were roaming that country, stocked with US books in German. We were at that time trying to heal the wounds of WWII and to keep West Germany firmly in the Western bloc. “The most important symbol of that process were the bookmobile’s open shelves.” European libraries generally had closed stacks and were fort-like. Still, there was some pushback. Some Germans felt it was an attempt at establishing American cultural dominance. Also, the Americans sometimes felt (as one wrote) “The type of books read fall somewhat short of the ideal.” In fact, the Germans were reading the books they want, and building the sort of community they wanted.

Where are book mobiles now? Green Day traveled in one. But there were no books in it. (There was, however, weed.) “By the 1990s, the book mobile’s iconic status had faltered.” Shrinking budgets, high gas costs, and the illusions of ubiquitous Internet access led people to think that book mobiles are archaic.

But there’s another story, in which the book mobile remains useful and surprising. At public libraries all over the country, book mobiles still travel the roads. Topeka KS just got a $200K grant to buy a new one, continuing 70 yrs of service. There was one at Burning Man.

You can even find them at the heart of the Internet. E.g., the Internet Archive. One of the advantages is that you can turn the digital works back into paper. IA has been sending out book mobiles that print public domain works into paper books. [I blogged about this ia while ago.] Google has funded a local one as well.

Derek ends by pointing to the dream of ubiquitous broadband as a continuation of the impulse behind the development of book mobiles. [Nice talk! I had no idea.]

(More at]

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