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Taking it to the Streets: Bookmobiles and Brooklyn

Jun 29, 2011 11:54 AM | 1 comment

It is a happy day for public libraries across the city!  Another nerve-wracking round of budget negotiations has come to a close, with the city of New York restoring record amounts of funding to the New York Public Library, Queens Public Library, and our very own Brooklyn Public Library.  After months of tireless advocacy efforts by library staff and supporters, this celebratory moment seems an opportune time to put our feet up, munch on some popcorn, and think back on the good work we do here.  Roll the clip!

This film, Who Grows in Brooklyn, is part of the Brooklyn Collection's 16mm film collection, which was in recent years transferred to DVD format for preservation.  All the films are available for viewing in the Brooklyn Collection, and, not surprisingly, cover a range of topics relating to our borough, from a tutorial on the quintessential Brooklyn bagel to a neighborhood's homage to one of its most famous residents, Barbra Streisand

But enough about the film collection -- what I really want to talk about today is the rolling library that trolls the streets looking for ravenous readers -- the bookmobile!  Brooklyn Public Library started offering bookmobile service in 1951, with its "Library-On-Wheels".  This souped-up truck was outfitted with the barebones accoutrements of a regular branch library -- shelves, books, a circulation desk, librarians, clerks -- along with a new addition to the staff: a driver.  An article in the September, 1957 issue American Library Association's newsletter ALA Bulletin, "Reaching Out: bookmobile service in Brooklyn", provides an in-depth breakdown of the specifications of Brooklyn's mobile library: "The bookmobile itself is 27 feet long, 8 feet wide, and weighs 21,500 pounds.  The shelves can conveniently carry 2,500 books." 

An early 1950s shot of the first Brooklyn Public Library bookmobile.  Due to high demand, a second bus was put into service in 1952.

The bookmobiles' mission was to reach those Brooklynites who lived beyond a half-mile radius of any of the 55 regular branch libraries, and neighborhoods with populations below 50,000.  As detailed in the ALA Bulletin article, the bookmobile stopped at two types of locations -- community hubs and schools.  A typical day saw the bookmobile visiting one to three locations for a few hours at a time, with each stop scheduled to maximize the number of visitors the bookmobile could host.  The bus would visit schools during the mornings, scheduling periods for each teacher to bring in students, and stop outside housing projects or shopping centers in the afternoon and evening to give workers and families a chance to drop off and pick up books.

In the days before the Coney Island library branch, kindergartners from P.S. 188 relied on weekly visits from the bookmobile.  The library-on-wheels made this stop at the Gravesend Houses every Tuesday from 10:00 to 11:50 during the 1950s. 

A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from October 18, 1953, reported that Brooklyn's bookmobiles lent out 252,323 books and traversed 6,600 miles of Brooklyn streets in 1952.  The ALA Bulletin article states that at a busy stop, the average book circulation is 238 books per hour -- that's four books a minute, from one circulation desk.  A Brookyn Public Library News Bulletin article from that same period is less precise, but perhaps more compelling, "Books are more popular than pretzels, traveling carousels and ice cream with the youngsters of Glenwood, one of fifteen stops on the Brooklyn Public Library Library-On-Wheels schedules."  The list of areas served by the bookmobiles indicates how much the borough has changed in the past 60 years, as many neighborhood names have since fallen off the map: "March, Breukelen, Kingsboro, Gravesend, Coney Island, Homecrest, Sea View, Marlboro, Beach Haven, Bay View." 

More compelling than the library's self-promoting prose, I think, are these images from our photograph collection, which show the bookmobiles as a sort of pop-up town square -- wherever the buses stop, neighbors and families gather, supporting the idea that libraries play a vital role as centers for community.

One of the bookmobile driver's duties was crowd control.  According to Frankie Alfano, above, "Driving a cab was never like this!"

Even horses are welcome at the Library-on-Wheels!

Of course, some of my favorite images are those of Brooklyn's "youngsters" making use of the bookmobile.  In 1957, children's circulation accounted for 70 percent of the total in Brooklyn's bookmobiles.

Conscientious patrons, right and below, prepare their books to be returned to the bookmobile librarian.

As the photo's caption states, a "book discussion in the noonday rush."

Curbside story hour at Ave. U and E 14th St.

Lost in the stacks.

Bookmobile service continued through the 1960s and 1970s, albeit in varying forms.  In 1967 the service was outsourced, somewhat, to a company called the Bookmobile Service Trust, which worked in cooperation with the Brooklyn Public Library but was not staffed by library personnel.  According to a July 6, 1967 article in the New York Times, this new, "canary-yellow" truck served the borough in troubled times, making stops in "deprived areas where people have often been fearful because of neighborhood tensions to leave their immediate neighborhoods to visit libraries."  That contract, which provided three bookmobiles for Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, and East New York, ran out in 1971, when the city unexpectedly refused to renew the deal.  After that, the Brooklyn Public Library fully reshouldered the task of bringing books to underserved populations.  This period also benefitted from the blue-and-white Sidewalk Service vans, which operated much the same as the bookmobiles, albeit on a smaller scale.   

The Sidewalk Service van makes an appearance at Bay Ridge's Ragamuffin Parade, 1968.

The Brooklyn Public Library continues to offer bookmobile service to this day.  New trucks have been purchased periodically as older models are put to well-deserved pasture.  A Kidsmobile was introduced to the fleet in 2000 in an effort to link libraries and schools in closer partnership, and to provide library service at parks in the summertime.  In spring 2009, the library unveiled four brand new bookmobiles, which included the Bibliobus, New York City's very first Spanish-language traveling library.  Institutions and organizations throughout the borough can request to have any of Brooklyn's bookmobiles visit their location.  Carrying on a sixty-year tradition at the Brooklyn Public Library, these 29-foot mobile libraries continue to provide invaluable service to the people of Brooklyn and thanks to the budget restoration, we can keep them rolling all year long.


7/14/2011 11:06:38 AM #

I attended Sts. Peter & Paul School on Berry Street in Williamsburg Brooklyn from September, 1948 until June, 1956 and remember the bookmobile visiting our school.

Anne (Penzynski)Vaccarelli