News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 5, 2010

MARK BENNETT: Bookmobiles still filling a void in era of budget cutting and branch closings

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The spin of a rotary phone would seem like an eternity, these days.

Today, two clicks on a cellphone can connect you with a friend in less time than it took to dial a zero. When the call was a tough one, the slow churn of each number was like a countdown, giving us time to fine-tune our opening line. Now, we’re linked almost instantly; so, ready or not, the conversation begins.

Still, most of us wouldn’t trade our 21st-century telecommunications gadgets for an old-school, curly-corded telephone. Nor would we go back to steel-pointed Jarts, 8-track tape players and manual steering in our cars.

But a few 1950s trends hold up remarkably well, more than a half-century later. Bookmobiles fit that category.

Actually, the “library on wheels” concept originated around 1900 with a horse and wagon in Hagerstown, Md. But the use of bookmobiles exploded in the ’50s, thanks to federal grants through the Library Services Act. Vigo County unveiled its first bookmobile on April 18, 1955, in front of the former main branch — the Emeline Fairbanks Memorial Library on North Seventh Street.

As a child of the 1960s, I remember anxiously awaiting that bookmobile’s regular stops at Prairieton Elementary School. This wasn’t a frontier town, but trips to the public library in Terre Haute took some extra planning for my parents, who were raising five children. So the bookmobile brought the literary world to us, in our little village in southwestern Vigo County. That’s where I found “Catcher with a Glass Arm” by Matt Christopher, a must-read for Little League catchers like myself.

That was the mission of America’s bookmobiles — to put books in the hands of people in rural areas and neighborhoods miles away from a local library branch.

In 2010, that premise seems particularly relevant, especially in Indiana. The implementation of property-tax caps has forced the closing of satellite branches in several Hoosier library districts, including Vigo County, where its Southland, Plaza North and Meadows locations shut down last year. Those painful closings saved the district $600,000, which should cover the expected funding shortfall in 2010, said Nancy Dowell, Vigo County Public Library director.

Some regular patrons of the lost branches have shifted to the main branch downtown, which has experienced a “huge increase” in traffic. Others are using the library’s Outreach Services, which uses a small van to deliver requested materials to homebound and disabled folks, preschools and day-cares, group homes, senior centers, churches and hospitals. But a certain segment of the Southland, Plaza North and Meadows have simply stopped using the library, Dowell said.

Could a bookmobile be the answer?

Vigo County ended its bookmobile service in 1996 because of “a lack of people using it,” Dowell explained, and mounting service costs. Occasionally, the library board has discussed the possibility of reviving the bookmobile. But bookmobiles aren’t cheap. Most new bookmobiles — crafted on school bus chassis — sell for $150,000 or more, and then must be staffed with a driver/librarian, fueled and equipped with books, Internet service, CDs, DVDs and books on tape.

For Vigo County, resumption of bookmobile service isn’t a viable option, Dowell said, especially with the door-to-door Outreach Services already available. Automated kiosks, similar to DVD vending machines, placed in high-traffic areas such as a grocery store lobby might be an affordable way for the library to expand its reach, Dowell added.

In other Hoosier communities, the bookmobile still fits a need.

Thirty-seven bookmobiles currently serve Indiana counties and towns, according to the most recent count by the National Center for Educational Statistics. The state ranks fifth nationally in the number of bookmobiles. The top five also includes two neighboring states, Kentucky (No. 1) and Ohio (No. 3), along with California (No. 2) and North Carolina (No. 5).

The Putnam County Library has offered continual bookmobile service for more than a half-century. For the past 17 years, Jane Glier has been Putnam County’s bookmobile librarian, making stops at day cares, tiny towns, nursing homes, youth camps, senior apartment houses and schools. “For some kids, this is the only library service they ever see,” Glier said.

In 2009, Putnam County’s bookmobile distributed 27,926 items, accounting for 10.9 percent of the library’s overall circulation last year. The library purchased the current bookmobile, made by Matthews Specialty Vehicles, in 2005. That one replaced a 1994 model. Besides the $180,000 pricetag, the yearly staffing and operating cost for a bookmobile averages between $50,000 and $60,000, said Putnam County Public Library director Alice Greenburg.

“A bookmobile is a significant investment,” Greenburg said.

The value, though, is also significant in Putnam County, where the lone library branch is in Greencastle. “It’s increased access for people who can’t make the trip to Greencastle,” said Greenburg, who is “committed to the bookmobile.”

Each community is different, and must decide whether it could benefit from a bus loaded with 5,000 books and videos, as well as wireless Internet laptops.

“We have found that using a bookmobile is a lot more cost effective than having a branch library,” Jody Olivieri, past president of the American Library Association said by telephone from Homer Township Library in Illinois. “But we also know a vehicle doesn’t hold its value the way a building does.”

Nationwide, the number of bookmobiles in use has fallen overall since the 1980s, but has increased recently. The U.S. bookmobile count jumped from 825 in 2005 to 930 in 2008, according to a report by the ALA.

“The biggest thing is they’re very flexible,” Michael Swendrowski, chairman of the ALA subcommittee on bookmobiles, said by phone from Muskego, Wis. The materials stocked on a bookmobile can be customized for the people at particular stops.

Bookmobiles aren’t merely vestiges of the past either, he added. Most come with wireless Internet stations. Some are powered with solar panels and use recycled materials. They cut fuel usage, “because these patrons don’t have to make their way in [to the main branch],” Swendrowski said. “So they’re actually very green.”

They’re not your father’s bookmobile, but he’d feel right at home climbing up those steps.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or