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Diplomats, Community Builders and Train Wrecks: How Bookmobiles Fit into American History

Derek Attig described the history of bookmobiles in a talk at the Barker Center.

Derek Attig

Derek AttigOctober 22, 2013—In 1905, a woman in Maryland was commissioned to drive a horse-drawn wagon filled with books into remote areas without libraries—which was a good idea until the cart was hit by a train. Luckily there were no human or equine casualties. 

Since then the history of the traveling library, or bookmobile, was considerably more positive, said Derek Attig, an American studies scholar, at a talk at Harvard earlier this month. Bookmobiles, he said, have had a considerable impact on American history—from aiding diplomacy to helping connect and unify communities in rural areas. 

“The most powerful role of bookmobiles has been to move books through space and create communities,” Attig said. To demonstrate, Attig showed a slide of the route of one of the first bookmobiles—which looked like an elaborate spider web, connecting communities through books.

Traveling libraries appeared in the late 1890s to bring books to small, rural towns without libraries and to augment small library collections. Books were shipped from a central repository to outlying areas, and post offices, general stores and living rooms were turned into ad hoc libraries. The books were later shipped back.

Bookmobiles even played a role in the Cold War: the United States installed them at exhibitions in Moscow and West Germany in the 1950s. When most of the books were stolen from the Moscow exhibition, journalists called for a “book airlift” and the stock was replenished. Dubbed the “Amerika Haus” in West Germany, the bookmobile used the “open shelf” format, which was new and highly appreciated. Although there were more bookmobiles on the road in the 1990s than in the 1950s, their viability has declined thanks to budget cuts and the cost of gasoline and maintenance. Yet, they have become somewhat iconic. For example, Attig said, the band Green Day used a repurposed bookmobile as their headquarters at the Lollapalooza music festival.

Attig concluded by observing that bookmobiles were designed to move information across geography, so there is still room on the roads for bookmobiles in the digital age. A cross-country bookmobile tour in 2002 allowed patrons to print, cut and bind materials right from the truck. Google has its own bookmobile at its headquarters. Bookmobile drivers Tweet their upcoming stops and most are Wi-Fi hotspots.

Derek Attig is a scholar of American studies and media history working on a project about bookmobiles as tools for imagining, building and contesting communities in the 20th-century United States. He was a 2012 Google policy fellow and  an OITP research associate at the American Library Association Office for Information Technology Policy. His talk was sponsored by the Library Innovation Lab, Library Lab, Library Test Kitchen and Office for Scholarly Communication.