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The bookmobile of the Ottawa Public Library. Note the backwards branding (in both English and French, owing to Ottawa's large anglophone and francophone populations). This particular model is based on a Saf-T-Liner HDX chassis.

A bookmobile or mobile library is a vehicle designed for use as a library. It is designed to hold books on shelves in such a way that when the vehicle is parked they can be accessed by readers. Mobile libraries are often used to provide library services to villages and city suburbs that have no library buildings. They can also service groups or individuals who have difficulty accessing libraries, for example, occupants of retirement homes. As well as regular books, a bookmobile might also carry large print books, audiobooks and computer equipment.


The Perambulating Library of 1859 in Warrington, England

The British Workman reported in 1857[1] a perambulating library operating in a circle of eight villages in Cumbria. A Victorian merchant and philanthropist, George Moore, created the project to "diffuse good literature among the rural population."[2]

The Warrington Perambulating Library, set up in 1858, was another early British mobile library. This horse-drawn van was operated by the Warrington Mechanics' Institute, which aimed to increase the lending of its books to enthusiastic local patrons.[3]

Fairfax County, Virginia had a bookmobile operating in the northwestern part of the county in 1890. County-wide bookmobile service was begun in 1940 in a truck loaned by the Works Progress Administration. The WPA support of the bookmobile ended in 1942, but the service did not. [4]

An early bookmobile in the United States was created in 1904 by the People's Free Library of Chester County, South Carolina, which served rural areas with a mule-drawn wagon carrying wooden boxes of books.[5]

Another early American bookmobile was developed by Mary Lemist Titcomb[6] (1857–1932). As librarian at the Washington County, Maryland Free Library, Titcomb was concerned that the library was not reaching all the people it could. The annual report for 1902 lists "23 branches", collections of 50 books in a case placed in stores and post offices around the county.[7] Realizing this still failed to reach all of the county's rural residents, in 1905 the Washington County Free Library provided one of the first American book wagons to residents by taking the books directly to their homes in remote parts of the county.[8]

Sarah Byrd Askew, a pioneering public librarian, was also an early developer of the bookmobile, driving her Ford Model T outfitted with a book collection to rural areas in New Jersey beginning in 1920.[9]

The Hennepin County Public Library (Minneapolis) started operating a bookmobile (then called a book wagon) in 1923.[10]

During the Works Progress Administration days of 1936-1943, horse mounted librarians or packhorse librarians traveled the remote coves and mountainsides of Kentucky and nearby Appalachia bringing books and similar supplies to those who could not make the trip to a library on their own. Sometimes they relied on a centralized contact to help them distribute the materials. [11]

Bookmobiles reached their height of popularity in the mid-twentieth century.

Present day[edit]

Lincolnshire mobile library covering small villages in this English county.[12]
Mobile Idea Store, London, 2008

Bookmobiles are still in use, operated by libraries, schools, activists, and other organizations. Although some feel that the bookmobile is an outmoded service, giving reasons like high costs, advanced technology, impracticality, and ineffectiveness, others cite the ability of the bookmobile to be more cost-efficient than building more branch libraries and its high use among its patrons as support for its continuation.[13] To meet the growing demand for "greener" bookmobiles that deliver outreach services to their patrons, some bookmobile manufacturers have introduced significant advances to reduce their carbon footprint, such as solar/battery solutions over traditional generators, and all-electric and hybrid-electric chassis.

The Internet Archive runs its own bookmobile to print out-of-copyright books on demand.[14] The project has spun off similar efforts elsewhere in the developing world.[15]

Other mobile libraries[edit]

Bookmobiles are used in many countries, but a mobile library can be run without a vehicle (mainly in the developing world). Some examples include:

  • A Camel Library Service in Kenya. This service which is funded by the Kenyan government and as a charity in Garissa and Wajir near the border with Somalia. The service started with three camels in October 1996 and had twelve in 2006 delivering 7000 books,[16] daily in English, Somali and Swahili[17] This service has been used as a background for the novel "The Camel Bookmobile" by Masha Hamilton.
  • A donkey-drawn mobile library in Zimbabwe[18] is being used to not only deliver books, but also to deliver access to the internet and multimedia.
  • The Biblioburro: In Colombia teacher Luis Soriano and his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto, bring books to children in rural villages twice a week. CNN chose Soriano as one of their 2010 Heroes of the Year.[19]
  • The library ship Epos serves many small communities in Western Norway.
  • Elephant Libraries in Thailand. In Thailand, elephants are used to take books and IT equipment and services to remote villages with no other library service.[20]

Similar services[edit]

In some areas of the United Kingdom (mostly rural Wales and Scotland), mobile banks and post offices are run using converted vans.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ an article, The British Workman, 1 February 1857,
  2. ^ George Moore,, accessed September 2011
  3. ^ Orton, Ian (1980). An Illustrated History of Mobile Library Services in the UK with notes on travelling libraries and early public library transport. Sudbury: Branch and Mobile Libraries Group of the Library Association. ISBN 0-85365-640-1. 
  4. ^ Fairfax County Library Timeline
  5. ^ Chester County Free Public Library history, accessed May 2010
  6. ^ The first county bookmobile in the US, Western Maryland Regional Library,
  7. ^ Washington County Free Library, First Annual Report for the Year ending October 1, 1902
  8. ^ Maryland State Archives, Maryland Women's Hall of Fame, Washington County Free Library
  9. ^ Susan B. Roumfort (1997). "Sarah Byrd Askew, 1877-1942". In Joan N. Burstyn. Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women. Syracuse University Press. pp. 103–104. 
  10. ^ Hennepin County Library, "In the Beginning",, retrieved October 4, 2014.
  11. ^ "Packhorse Librarians in Kentucky" University of Kentucky
  12. ^ "Mobile Libraries". Lincolnshire County Council. Retrieved 22 November 2013. "Wherever you live in Lincolnshire, whether in the countryside of the Wolds or Fens, the Coastal area or even on the edge of a town, a Mobile Library will stop nearby." 
  13. ^ Bashaw, D. (2010). On the road again: A look at bookmobiles, then and now. Children & Libraries, 8(1), 32-35. Retrieved from
  14. ^ Jeffrey Schnapp; Matthew Battles (2014). Library Beyond the Book. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-72503-4. 
  15. ^ The Internet Archive Bookmobile
  16. ^ Kenya's children of the desert Guardian Unlimited Dec 2005 accessed June 2007
  17. ^ Kenyan Camel Book Drive accessed June 2007
  18. ^ Donkeys help provide Multi-media Library Services IFPlant Feb 2002 Accessed June 2007
  19. ^
  20. ^ IFLA Mobile Section Newsletter Number 1 Autumn 2002
  21. ^ BBC News,

Further reading[edit]

  • The Bookmobile: Defining the Information Poor An article on the history of the bookmobile in the US.
  • Moore, Benita (1989) A Lancashire Year. Preston: Carnegie Publishing ("based on experiences while working on the Lancashire County Library mobile library service" in the 1960s)
  • Stringer, Ian (2001) Britain's Mobile Libraries. 52 pages; illustrations. Appleby-in-Westmorland: Trans-Pennine Publishing in association with Branch & Mobile Libraries Group of the Library Association ISBN 1-903016-15-0
  • Mobile Library Guidelines (2010) co-ordinated by Ian Stringer. Paris: IFLA ISBN 978-90-77897-45-4 ISSN 0168-1931

External links[edit]

  • Association of Bookmobile & Outreach Services [1]