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

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)

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Bookmobiles are still in service abroad. In at least three African and South American countries, camels and donkeys draw mobile libraries from town to town. Thailand drafts elephants into use, while Norway’s modern library ship Epos has served tiny coastal communities with its cargo of 6,000 volumes since 1963.

If Corwin realizes his vision, bookmobiles may slowly edge their way back into the mainstream. His planned documentary—Behind the Wheel of the Bookmobile—will feature interviews with renowned authors as they maneuver the Moroney across North America, giving away books donated by authors and publishers (http://bookmobiletravels.com/Home.html). To date more than 40 writers have signed on, including Amy Tan, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon and April Sinclair. Author Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, was one of Corwin’s test pilots. He gleefully recalls his experience with a lumbering vehicle “full of books and shaky, like a writer's mind. The experience of driving it reminded me of trying to get a mountain to listen to reason.”

Writers who grew up with bookmobiles seem imprinted with a sense of gratitude, and unforgotten inspiration. “There was a bookmobile in Marin,” recalls Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott, “that you saw all the time. I have mystical dreamscape memories of climbing on board.”

Author and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams tells how she “waited with my brother for the bookmobile to come up our hill each Saturday. It was all part of the magic of our childhood, where books and natural history were all part of the same narrative of spending time outside.“

“The summer I turned eleven,” says Ralph Eubanks, “William Faulkner’s The Reivers came off the shelf of the bookmobile. It was the first book I read by a Mississippi author, the first hint that someone from my part of the world could also become a writer.”

These memories recall the era when a printed book was a precious thing. Today, the access once provided by bookmobiles is being usurped by iPads, Kindles and the Internet. The speed and convenience of these devices, combined with the staggering wealth of online content, makes them deeply seductive. With the digital revolution changing our reading habits, will bookmobiles become obsolete?

Tom Corwin believes not. “I sometimes read books on my iPhone,” he admits. “But there’s a different relationship with something made of pulp and ink. Books have a texture, a smell. There’s a sensual relationship with a book that we lose in the digital world.”

“It’s still a damn good technology,” agrees Ethan Canin, author of America, America. “If paper books continue to thrive, I think it will be for their practical qualities: light, cheap, not-likely-to-be-stolen, difficult to break, easily displayable -- and eminently lendable.”

But it’s not just about books. There’s also the human-to-human connection with bookmobile librarians, who steer and inspire their visitors’ reading patterns.

Though she agrees with Corwin and Canin, Martha Buckner—a bookmobile librarian in Ashland, Ohio since 2003—admits that the digital revolution is changing her audience. “While we serve members of all ages, we’ve began shifting our focus to preschools and daycares. We strongly believe that it is important that young children have a positive library experience, and that a book in every hand is crucial to promoting early literacy and future educational success.”


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