What are your earliest memories of reading? Of finding yourself surrounded by the musty smell of books that begged you to open their pages, to peruse their inner glories? I know this post will age me, but for me those memories date back to a time —decades ago—when I was growing up in a small rural community.
When I was quite young, we were a single-car family. My father worked elsewhere and “hobby” farmed. My mother was home with us eight—yes, count them—eight children. (Eight “girl” children, to be exact!) As you might expect, this meant that we did not often go places. Entertainment was found in our own backyard, creating stories that we sometimes acted out, encouraging the few other neighborhood children there were to engage with us in our make-believe escapades. One of our favorite pastimes was to play “Harriet the Spy,” a game (obviously) named from the book of the same title. With our notebooks in hand, we would try to creep up unaware on one another, taking notes of what they were doing, leaving behind little tidbits for other to find. . . . Finding someone’s notebook unattended offered a plethora of fascinating information about the antics of others. From whence did ideas of this ilk come? Reading—of course. And, where better to pick up those ideas than from the books we checked out from the bookmobile that made its way to our little community from time to time?
I suppose the bookmobile had a schedule. It must be that it showed up every second Tuesday or Thursday (or whatever) through the summer months. Truth to tell, I don’t remember, though my mother might. I’ll have to ask her one day. I just recall hearing those magic words from time to time: “The Bookmobile is here!” The hunt would begin for all those books we’d taken out the last time and perhaps misplaced in the interim so that we could return them and select new ones: new mysteries, like Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys; new fantasies, like The Little Witch or Mio My Son; new adventures, like The Oregon Trail; new animal stories like Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows. Ah yes, those were the days—when the library came to us.
I have not seen a bookmobile for many long years—but I did a little research. They do still exist. It seems the first “taking of collections of books to people” was in 1893. By 1899 there were 2500 “traveling collections.” It seems Melvil Dewey was the genius behind the idea. (The information and statistics shared here are derived from http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/44220/History-of-Bookmobiles/#vars!date=1950-12-30_22:59:08).
In very early days, some book collections traveled by horseback. By 1900 some libraries sent books by mail to those who could not even reach the traveling collections. Then came the first motorized bookmobile in 1912. In 1929 the term “bookmobile” was coined. Check out these statistics: in 1950, there were about 600 bookmobiles; by 1956, over 900; by 1970, over 2000. As might be expected, when fuel costs increased, the number of bookmobiles decreased. By 1990 there were only about 1100 remaining and by 2000, there were fewer than 900—roughly the same number as in 1956.
I think of children today who do not have libraries near them and wonder how many budding geniuses, how many creators of their own stories that could be shared with the world might be lost with the demise of the bookmobile. For my part, I will always hold dear memories of those sticky hot summer days when my sisters and I would heed the call: “The Bookmobile is Here!”