When I lived in rural Arizona, we were tucked away on sloping acreage, surrounded by mountains and scrubby desert. Twenty miles from the nearest town, we lacked basic services that many of my city-dwelling friends took for granted: trash pick-up, cell phone service, reliable internet. Sometimes during summer storms or winter freezes, our landline would temporarily turn to static, and we would lose all communication with the rest of the world.
As a young mother, this meant no play groups or coffee meet-ups with other moms. My children rarely experienced playgrounds or library story time. Instead, they caught chickens and climbed tractors. They played with sticks and covered themselves in mud down in the river.
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But once a month, the library bookmobile would park at the end of our property, on the shoulder of the road where the pavement turned to dirt. On those days, I would strap the baby to my chest and take my stepson’s hand, and we would walk down the road to the bookmobile. The converted bus was filled with books, DVDs, magazines, even a pillow in the children’s section for kids to prop on their elbows and read. It felt like a secret special world, curated just for us.
In the article “The Bookmobile: Defining the Information Poor,” MSU Philosophy writer Joshua Finnell notes that, while public libraries were created in the mid-1800s to offer equal access to information, they were primarily operated by the white, educated middle class. “Whether intentionally or not, library holdings, furnishings, programs, and even hours of operation all sent a powerful message about who controlled access to information in our society and provided the basis for defining the information rich and the information poor,” writes Finnell.
The non-white and the working poor were systemically left out of the public library structure, and due to the location of most libraries, rural residents also had limited access. In an effort to reach those communities, librarian Mary Titcomb created a horse-drawn wagon to haul books to post offices and stores at the beginning of the 20th century—the first bookmobile.
By 1912, the horse-drawn library wagon was replaced by a motorized bookmobile. Bookmobiles became part of the larger literacy effort, transporting reading materials to rural communities, schools, and senior centers. In the 1950s and ’60s, bookmobiles reached over 30 million Americans living in rural communities, before fuel shortages in the 1970s and ’80s triggered a decline.
A little over a decade ago, the number of bookmobiles started growing again—according to the American Library Association, they increased by more than 10 percent between 2003 and 2005. Today there are approximately 660 bookmobiles in operation, according to the latest data from the Institute of Museum and Library Services survey.
Ann Plazek, president of the Association for Bookmobile and Outreach Services, says bookmobile numbers fell slightly in 2014 (with a loss of ten nationwide), but she expects that 2015 statistics, which have not yet been released, will reflect an increase.
“There were numerous library systems adding bookmobiles for the first time,” she says. “I think we’re going to see a turnaround —especially as they’re becoming greener and more economical. Some bookmobiles are installing solar panels, which cuts down on the need for generators, and that’s been a huge change.”
Judy Calhoun grew up 18 miles from town in rural Arkansas. Once a month, the bookmobile visited her community. “Everyone would come over,” she remembers. “I was a huge reader, and even though they had a rule that you could only check out five books at a time, the librarian would let me check out 30 books. In the summer, I could read one book a day.”
Calhoun grew up to become a librarian herself, managing a branch for 14 years, and currently serves as the president of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries. As the Director of the Southeast Arkansas Regional Library System, she oversees nine libraries in five counties in southeast Arkansas. “Eighty percent of libraries in the United States are small or rural,” she says. “So we’re actually the majority.”
Arkansas is one of the poorest states in the country—ranked 48th in 2016—with an overall poverty rate of 19.1%. Most of the counties served by Calhoun’s library system have poverty rates more than double the state average, and she says libraries in these areas are especially linked to the well-being of their patrons.
“People are leaving these little communities,” she says. “They’re moving away to seek jobs. Once they lose their school, we see a decline in population. As a result, small and rural libraries are continually battling declining revenues. But there are still people here who can’t afford to move, or who won’t move away, because this is their home. So we keep working to serve those people.”
Recently, three of the smaller branch libraries in southeast Arkansas were forced to close. One was shut down completely because the building was in disrepair, and the other two were donated to the towns and are now being run by volunteers. “We even left the computers for them,” says Calhoun.
“For a lot of these little towns, they can’t afford the permanent site. You’ve got to pay the building fees, electricity, internet, phone. In a lot of these places, the buildings are getting unusable, and there aren’t resources to keep them safe. So we’re seeing a resurgence of bookmobiles,” says Calhoun. “As we should.”
Even though bookmobiles are regaining popularity, Plazek says she encounters people shocked that they still exist. “Some people think bookmobiles are these antiquated things,” she says, “But we still exist, and we’re still relevant.”
That’s because mobile and rural library services have adapted to serve as community hubs. My neighbors and I used to lean against our bookmobile’s counter to talk about all strides of our lives—pecan harvests and rainfall predictions, mountain lion sightings, an elderly neighbor in search of large-print mystery novels. We discussed lost dogs, the price of alfalfa, and the latest in the opposition to the high-voltage power lines slated to be built through our valley. The bookmobile was a place of gathering, of communion over the complexities and the intricacies of our lives, for passing time with one another in a tiny air-conditioned bus on the side of a dusty road.
Calhoun acknowledged this personal connection, too. “People love to tell us about their troubles, what’s going on in their lives, what they need. We’re kind of like a bartender. We get to know the people we’re serving in a different way.”
Part of that bond is because bookmobiles, and rural libraries more broadly, meet very real needs. Calhoun’s system doubles as a voter registration site, provides tax form assistance, maintains copy and computer centers, and even has an initiative to help combat hunger in the community. And Plazek notes that bookmobiles are often adjusted so they can cater to day cares, Amish populations, or seniors.
Even so, Calhoun admits: “We’re kind of modest. We don’t toot our own horns, and we’ve got to change that.” She says her job is to advocate for small and rural libraries, so she visits legislators at the state capitol, attends conferences, and talks to donors. “People will ask, ‘Are rural libraries really needed?’ And I just keep saying, ‘Come and see what we’re doing. We’re needed. We’re still so needed.’”