PBS Premiere: July 19, 2011Check the broadcast schedule »

A History of the Bookmobile

Biblioburro: The Donkey Library tells the story of one man's journey to bring books to children in the Colombian countryside. Throughout history, bookmobile founders have often had a similar goal -- bringing literacy to the masses.

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. 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.

Watch how Mary Titcomb's legacy lives on today in Washington County, MD in this video produced by VOA News:

The bookmobile was soon replicated around the country as a cost-effective way to encourage literacy in poor communities. 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.

Yet as mobile libraries adapt to meet technological demand, the negative trend is being reversed. From 2003 to 2005, the number of bookmobiles in the United States grew by more than 10 percent, according to the American Library Association.

Internationally, mobile libraries with similar aims have also been developed:

  • S.R. Ranganathan launched South Asia's first bookmobile in 1931. The two-wheeled cart library in India became instrumental in educating the rural poor.
  • In 1996, the Kenyan government launched the Camel Library Service with books in English, Somali and Swahili. By 2006, the service had expanded its collection to 7,000 books.
  • Zimbabwe followed Biblioburro's lead by adopting a donkey-drawn bookmobile that also provides technology services.
  • Elephant-drawn libraries exist in Thailand, while itinerant ships serve smaller maritime communities in western Norway.

Elephant and boat libraries

(L) Elephant libraries prepare in Thailand; Credit: The Cambridge Library
(R) The Epos bookboat in Norway; Credit: Wikipedia user Anders, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic

» American Library Association: National Bookmobile Day 2011
» Western Maryland's Historical Library: The Bookmobile Collection
» MSU Philosophy Club: The Bookmobile: Defining the Information Poor