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Bookmobile services are offered in many rural areas where library services and library books are often not available. Read this article for the history of the bookmobile and learn how bookmobiles have developed due to changes in technology.

Some people have no idea what a bookmobile is, while to others, it is an integral part of life. This article gives an overview of bookmobiles.

What Is a Bookmobile?

A bookmobile is a traveling vehicle that provides access to books in places in which access would otherwise be impossible. It is worth noting that while the idea spread through the United States with libraries using motorized vehicles, in other parts of the world, the same idea is carried out using boats, buses, camels, and donkeys.

The History of the Bookmobile

Maryland and Minnesota

The first bookmobile grew out of the vision of Miss Mary Titcomb, the first librarian at Washington County Free Library in Maryland. Miss Titcomb looked at the Library Wagon, which delivered boxes of books through the county, and imagined something more: a wagon that held books in an attractive array and traveled a regular route.

Her bookwagon was launched in April, 1905, drawn by two horses. On its first trip, its somber appearance, meant to avoid frivolity, convinced homeowners that it was a hearse. But a new paint job and publicity soon taught people what this wagon was for. A motorized version first entered service in 1912.

Up to this time, the book wagons either delivered boxes of books, or had shelves along the outside, so patrons could walk around the vehicle and choose books. According to sources, it was in Hibbing, Minnesota in 1915 that the first actual bookmobile - a vehicle that the patron entered to peruse the available volumes - made its appearance. By 1920s, they could be seen across the nation. The bookmobile came to serve rural patrons, senior citizens, preschool programs, and schools, among others.


Other projects prefiguring bookmobiles were simultaneously developing in other states. In 1887, Mrs. C. P. Barnes of Louisville, Kentucky started the Traveling Book Project, through which books were shipped to parts of Kentucky without a library. The books were read and returned. The project developed to the point of having 182 stations in 1913. Then, in 1916, Berea College began a bookwagon service.

After a decline caused by the Depression, a bookmobile or “motorized library” was started in 1933 in Avery, and a packhorse library was established in 1934. The bookmobile program was taken to the state level by Mary Belknap Gray, a member of the Friends of Kentucky Libraries. By 1955, the Kentucky Bookmobile Project had successfully campaigned to the point that Kentucky had 100 mobile libraries, including 88 bookmobiles, plus panel trucks and other vehicles.

Kentucky has instituted some unique bookmobile programs. Some have a special place for children’s book recommendations to be posted. Some carry the names of library patrons. Some brings paperbacks to visitors who stay at Kentucky State parks. In 2001, Kentucky began a pilot project for a “Cybermobile,” aimed at combining the services of the traditional bookmobile with advanced technology.

Internet Archive Bookmobile

The Internet Archive Bookmobile is a special bookmobile that celebrates the availability of books in the public domain, that is, books that are not copyrighted, and are freely available to the public, whether because their copyrights have expired or because they have Creative Commons licenses. The book mobile was launched in September of 2002. It contains the technology to print books inexpensively and provides access to nearly 20,000 titles. They figure their cost as a “Buck a Book” ($1 per book), and this low price allows books to be given away. These features all fit with the goal of the Internet Archive Bookmobile, which is to spread knowledge.

Besides spreading books to the public, the Internet Archive Bookmobile aims to make it clear to libraries how much (or, in their terms, how little) it would cost to print public domain books for their patrons.