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By the mid-20th century bookmobiles had become a part of American life, with more than 2,000 plying our inner cities and rural roadways. (Bettmann / Corbis)

Long Overdue, the Bookmobile Is Back

Even in the age of the Kindle and the Nook, the library on wheels can still attract an audience

smithsonian.com

Tom Corwin clearly recalls the day when, on a whim, he decided to buy and restore a classic bookmobile.

“The best ideas just happen to you,” says Corwin, a writer and musician whose boyish, intense enthusiasm is highly contagious. “A friend came to dinner, and showed me the ad. He was hoping to use the bookmobile to extend his home library—into his back yard. When he realized it wouldn’t fit, I had an idea: Get well-known authors behind the wheel of the bookmobile, taking turns on a drive across the country, talking about the books that have touched their lives. What a great way to remind people of our connection to the written word, and how powerful it can be.”

Corwin, who lives just north of San Francisco, picked up the vehicle in Chicago. Made by Moroney— a family-owned company in Massachusetts, and America’s last hand-builder of bookmobiles— the mobile library had just been retired after 15 years of travel. Its sturdy oak shelves had showcased more than 3,200 books.

As Corwin navigated his new ride through the streets of Chicago, he was approached by an African-American man who asked if it was possible to peek inside. Bookmobiles, the man said, had been a fundamental inspiration while growing up in rural Mississippi in the mid-1960s. The public library had been closed to blacks—but the bookmobile stopped right on his street, a portal into the world of literature.

The gentleman was W. Ralph Eubanks: today an acclaimed author, and director of publishing for the Library of Congress.

“In contrast to the summer heat in south Mississippi, the bookmobile was frigid inside,” remembers Eubanks. “The librarians did not care that I was barefoot, and wearing a pair of raggedy shorts. All they cared about was that I wanted to read—and to help me find something I would enjoy reading.”

Eubanks’ story is just one example of the pivotal role bookmobiles have played in literary culture, and individual lives, for more than 150 years.

The first bookmobile seems to have appeared in Warrington, England, in 1859. That horse-drawn cart, a “perambulating library,” lent some 12,000 books during its first year of operation—a century before the sleek vehicle that would visit Arlington, Massachusetts, during my own elementary school years.

America’s first “traveling branch library” plied the county roads of Maryland, championed by visionary librarian Mary Titcomb. “Filled with an attractive collection of books and drawn by two horses,” wrote Titcomb, “with Mr. Thomas the janitor both holding the reins and dispensing the books, it started on its travels in April 1905.”

By the mid-20th century bookmobiles had become a part of American life, with more than 2,000 plying our inner cities and rural roadways. But shrinking budgets and rising costs have dimmed their prominence. Less than 1,000 bookmobiles now serve the continental U.S. and Alaska and they often show up in some unlikely places. The last bookmobile I encountered, before Tom Corwin’s, was parked at the sprawling Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. A surprising number of celebrants were happy to forego the all-night revelry, and curl up instead with borrowed copies of Tender is the Night or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

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