The bookmobile is something many of us have fond memories of from childhood. Before the Internet and on-demand books, the bookmobile was one of the only ways to borrow books without actually stepping foot in a library. According to the American Libraries Magazine, bookmobiles trace their history back to Cumbria, England, where collections of books were carried around the city by horse and cart.
The idea made its way to the United States when Mary Lemist Titcomb, a 20th-century librarian in Maryland decided to start distributing books to those in rural areas who couldn’t necessarily make it to the library. She put in place a system of satellite libraries at general stores and post offices. Books from the library where Titcomb worked, the Washington County Free Library, were taken to the general stores and post offices by horse-drawn cart where people could check them out.
Thanks to these early successes, bookmobiles sprang up around the country. According to PBS, with the mass production and burgeoning popularity of cars, horse and cart book distribution was replaced by motorized vehicles as early as 1912. Motorized bookmobiles took books to senior citizens, schools, and rural areas.
According to PBS, there were as many as 60 bookmobiles in operation. These bookmobiles primarily served impoverished communities, as it was thought that bookmobiles were an effective way to encourage literacy in poor areas.
The progress of the bookmobile was hindered during the 1930s and 1940s, according to PBS, but the 1950s saw a boom in bookmobiles. In 1956, the U.S. government enacted legislation to expand bookmobile services to ensure that tens of millions of people in rural areas had access to free books.
Bookmobile programs were cut in some areas in the 1970s and 1980s due to high fuel prices. Bookmobiles didn’t fare any better from 1990 to 2003 when PBS estimated that there was a 20-percent decline in bookmobile services. Currently, according to American Libraries Magazine, there are about 900 bookmobiles in operation. These bookmobiles try to keep up with modern tastes and trends offering a variety of media such as DVDs, free Internet, video games and mobile classes for the community.