Books on a burro! Image from Wikimedia Commons via Acción Visual/Diana Arias.
No better method has ever been devised for reaching the dweller in the country. The book goes to the man, not waiting for the man to come to the book.
— Mary Titcomb, founder of the first U.S. bookmobile
In the late 19th century, horse/mule-drawn wagons began serving rural villages in England, with the United States soon following suit. After a brief dip in bookmobile production during the World Wars and Great Depression, bookmobile service surged in the 1950s — possibly due to the Library Services Act of 1956, which designated government funds for the purpose of the development of library services in underserved and rural areas.
However, by the 1990s, bookmobile use was in decline. For most modern-day library districts in the developed world, bookmobiles are a rare sight. Only 6% of American public libraries have bookmobile ‘branches.’ Home-bound patrons who cannot get to their local library branches generally receive direct deliveries.
In developing and/or rural areas across the globe, however, mobile libraries can be true lifesavers: tools for education, imagination, and fun.
Here are five of the coolest mobile libraries from across the globe:
Possibly the most well-known mobile library on the list, the Biblioburro — actually composed of two different donkeys, Alfa and Beto — is run by Luis Soriano, a primary school teacher who manages the mobile library in his spare time and on his own dime, with help from donations.
Every month about 300 people borrow from Soriano’s library of over 4,000 books. The most popular selections include anything by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho and educational primers and encyclopedias.
Established by the Kenya National Library Service as an effort to improve literacy rates in the northeastern regions of the country (largely peopled by nomads), this mobile library consists of 9 camels, each carrying 400 books.
The Camel Mobile Library carries mostly educational texts, which, for children, match the syllabi of the current public education system — storybooks and subject books for grammar school students and textbooks for secondary students. Selections for adults coordinate with the Ministry of Adult Education’s recommendations.
The Camel Mobile Library has some 3,500 registered members — more than many traditional brick-and-mortar library branches.
Since Norway’s coastal region is made up of many remote islands and islets, library services by fjord are the easiest way to access many communities.
Funded by the national library authorities, these floating mobile libraries began making their rounds way back in 1959! The first ship, Abdullah, was “….an instant success….in one and a half month [sic] it visited 150 hamlets lending 7000 books.”
Abdullah was replaced in 1962 by the Fjord Guide, a bigger ship that could offer film screenings and author readings. In 1963 the current ship, Epos, started sailing. The library now carries about 6,000 books and “….sails from September to April, the period being split into two tours. Each tour, lasting for 45 days, covers the three counties and the visits count about 150 small communities.”
During Argentina’s military junta dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s, the Ford Falcon was the preferred car for members of the army, secret police, and “anti-communist death squads.”
When artist Raul Lemesoff was creating his mobile library, he turned this negative association on its head and re-purposed an old Falcon into a tank-shaped bookmobile that travels urban Buenos Aires and smaller Argentinian towns with its over 900 books.
Named for the Haitian phrase for shared taxi cab (‘tap tap’), this mobile library consists of three modified pickup trucks that make weekly stops with their two facilitators, one for adults and one for children. They “….organize a wide variety of group activities (public readings, debates, workshops, etc.).”
In Haiti, where the literacy rate hovers around 50% and many traditional library buildings were damaged by the 2010 earthquake — rendering them inaccessible — the BiblioTapTap mobile libraries are some of the country’s only avenues for promoting access to information.