Bookmobiles: What Exactly Are They?

Bookmobiles may look different than when you were a kid, but they're still running and bringing more resources than ever to their communities.

Bookmobiles are the earliest form of library outreach, and they continue to evolve over the years.

Many public libraries feature outreach services that help all community members access books and public information. However, did you know that there are also libraries that can come to you? These are known as bookmobiles, and they have a history that spans an entire century in the U.S. Whether it’s by van, bus, or horse, bookmobiles make sure every community has access to essential library services. 

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What Are Bookmobiles?

Otherwise known as mobile libraries, bookmobiles are direct-delivery outreach services. Bookmobiles travel via different forms of transportation to provide free information to anyone interested in utilizing its resources. This century-old amenity has provided library services to urban, rural, tribal, and suburban communities all across the country. As a result, bookmobiles continue to be one of the most accessible library outreach services available. 

The History of Bookmobiles

The first U.S. bookmobiles date back to 1905 when a horse-and-buggy transported books for the Hagerstown Public Library, now part of the Washington County Free Library. These original bookmobiles, previously known as traveling libraries, proved vital for remote rural areas without immediate access to public libraries. The first vehicle-transported bookmobile debuted in 1912, leading to further bookmobile booms in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’90s. 

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Modern Bookmobile Services

As one might expect, bookmobiles still have one primary purpose: giving all people access to free information and resources. However, bookmobiles have expanded their services based on changing technology and community needs. For example, OverDrive’s Digital Bookmobile teaches people how to use their library’s online resources. Other bookmobiles have also included vital community needs, such as free meals, wifi, and makerspaces.

Noteworthy Mobile Libraries

Some bookmobiles get particularly creative. For example, Luis Sorano of Colombia is affectionately referred to as “El Biblioburro” by community members—“The Traveling Library.” He rides his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto, and gives rural community members free books. Back in the U.S., OlaRonke Akinmowo runs the Brooklyn-based Free Black Women’s Library. This bookmobile features 5,000 books written by Black women with the goal of celebrating their brilliance and imagination.

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