A bookmobile or mobile library is a vehicle designed for use as a library. It is designed to hold books on shelves in such a way that when the vehicle is parked they can be accessed by readers. Mobile libraries are often used to provide library services to villages and city suburbs that have no library buildings. They can also service groups or individuals who have difficulty accessing libraries, for example, occupants of retirement homes. As well as regular books, a bookmobile might also carry large print books, audiobooks, other media, IT equipment, and Internet access.
Inspired by reports of small mobile libraries in 19th-century England, librarian Mary Titcomb launched the first bookmobile in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Titcomb’s goal was to extend the reach of the Washington County Free Library in Maryland by starting a book transport system to rural communities. She developed a horse-drawn library wagon to send boxes of books to nearby general stores and post offices.
As Miss Titcomb noted: “Any account of this first Book Wagon work, the first in the United States would be incomplete without the statement that this method of rural library extension has been adopted in many states in the Union, and that new book wagons are being put in operation each year.”
By 1904, 66 deposit stations had sprung up to dispense books throughout the county. In 1912, the first motorized bookmobiles were born, and they transported books not only to rural areas, but also to local schools and senior centers.In the early 1900s, a librarian could purchase a bookmobile for as little as $1,000. By the late 1930s, there were as many as 60 bookmobiles nationwide. The Great Depression and two World Wars then sharply curtailed services and bookmobile production around the country.
During the boom years of the 1950s, bookmobile production resurged. Many credit the Library Services Act of 1956 for expanding bookmobile services to reach more than 30 million people in smaller rural communities. Additional legislation in the 1960s sparked the renewed popularity of bookmobiles by extending government funding and services to urban areas.
However, rising fuel costs and budget cutbacks in the 1970s and 1980s forced libraries to scale back their bookmobile services. More recently, there was a 20 percent decline in bookmobiles from 1990 to 2003; digital technologies may be a contributing factor.