On the Road with the Coventry Mobile Library

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A photo of the Coventry Public Library's mobile library parked with a library worker standing outside. Text overtop the image reads "On the Road with the Coventry Mobile Library. A banner at the bottom reads "Rhody Radio" with the podcast logo (outline of the state of Rhode Island wearing headphones).

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Lauren Walker: You are listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online. I'm Lauren Walker, the assistant director at Coventry Public Library, and I'm going to be talking about our summer Mobile Library. This summer, we launched a pilot program for a bookmobile or a mobile library, made possible in part by a grant from the Rhode Island Office of Library and Information Services using funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The mobile library van is bringing books and library programs and services to locations all over Coventry during July and August 2021. It's been a blast working on this project, and I'm excited to talk about it today.

First of all, let's talk about what a bookmobile is. Some listeners may remember visiting a bookmobile as a child, but others might not have ever encountered one. A bookmobile is basically a vehicle of some kind that brings books to people instead of those people having to visit the physical library. Today, sometimes these are called mobile libraries instead of bookmobiles to emphasize the fact that, nowadays, these vehicles don't just bring books but also programs, Wi-Fi, library card sign-up, and more. For this podcast, I'll be using the terms interchangeably.

One of the first recorded traveling libraries was the American School Library in 1839, which, as far as I can tell, was a set of books published by Harper & Brothers that was carried around in a wooden carrying case. There isn't much information about this, except that the only complete set with the carrying case that is known to still exist, is at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. I was also able to find an image. It looks like it's either a sketch or maybe an engraving of the [00:02:00] Warrington Perambulating Library, which is a horse-drawn cart full of books in Warrington, England, and that was circa 1859.

Other than these, the bookmobile that is widely considered the first actual library bookmobile was created in 1905 by a librarian named Mary Lemist Titcomb, who lived in Maryland. I hope I pronounced that correctly. This was a horse-drawn book wagon that brought books to remote parts of the community and even delivered to people in their homes. By the 1930s, many bookmobiles looked more like the bookmobiles we know today, not horse-drawn carts, but rather trucks outfitted with bookshelves.

After the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration or the WPA funded several bookmobiles as well as the Pack Horse Project, which is something that I was really happy to stumble upon because I think this is really cool. For the Pack Horse Project, pack horse librarians, which is what they were called, would bring books on horseback to remote families in the Appalachian Mountains. Of course, the WPA was started to create new jobs after the Great Depression, and librarianship was considered a woman's profession at the time. This project was intended to give more jobs to women.

These tenacious librarians would go out on horseback through the mountains, probably camping overnight in places, maybe even having to hunt for food, just to bring books to people living in remote areas and keep them educated and entertained. I just think this is such a cool little tidbit of history, and I honestly think someone needs to make a movie about it. I'm picturing like a western movie, and the poster for it has three librarians on horseback, and it could be called The Good, the Bad, and the Well-Read. [chuckles]

Anyways, during World War II [00:04:00] bookmobiles brought books to military bases, and there was even a Jeep full of books that made its way across the Western Front bringing books to soldiers. After the war in the 1950s and '60s, bookmobiles became more prevalent, and this was because so many people were living in the suburbs and moving out into the suburbs from the cities that the suburbs had to expand out. People were living farther and farther away from the central library branches. These neighborhoods were expanding faster than the libraries could build new branches, so they started using bookmobiles to reach those families who lived farther out.

That pretty much brings us to today. Bookmobiles can now be found in urban areas as well as rural towns, and they bring much more than just books. Here in Coventry, we decided to try out a mobile library program because the town is very large and spread out. There are a lot of people who either can't get to the library or for whom it's not convenient to get to the library. We thought that a mobile library program would really work well here.

Our Mobile Library is a pilot program right now, so sort of a test run over the summer. We rented a cargo van, and we use it to bring books, crafts, games, storytimes, tech help, library card sign-up, all of the best library services to different locations around town. We're hoping that this pilot leads to a permanent bookmobile that we can use year-round to bring library out into the community.

So far, the Coventry Mobile Library has visited Coventry Crossroads and Coventry Meadows, which are two housing authority properties for families. We visited the Senior Center, the Parks and Recreation Summer Kids Program, and Camp Westwood. At the end of the podcast, I'll share the rest of the bookmobile schedule for the summer in case you want to come out and visit us. In this episode, [00:06:00] I wanted to include two important voices. I first interviewed Megan Weeden, the library director and the one who came up with the great idea to have a bookmobile in the first place.

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Megan Weeden: I'm Megan Weeden, I'm the director of the Coventry Public Library.

Lauren: How did you come up with the idea to have a mobile library?

Megan: Well, I've worked at the Coventry Public Library for about seven years, first as the head of adult services. I always thought that a bookmobile would work well here. Coventry is the biggest town in this small state, and there's about 35,000 residents. While our building is pretty centrally located, and we do have a branch in our western section of town, it's a lot of area to cover and people to reach. If you don't have transportation or you don't drive, it's not that easy to get to our building.

Also, our existing 10,000-square-foot building was built in 1979, and it's shared with town hall. It's never really been big enough to do all the things that we'd like to do, especially programming since we do not have our own program room. In 2001, a group of library enthusiasts formed the Coventry Public Library Foundation. Its goal was to give Coventry a newly renovated and expanded facility to meet current and future needs. Over the past 20 years, the foundation has held numerous events to help raise money for this goal.

They met in the fall of last year to reevaluate their purpose and goals. They were looking for new ideas that would be more realistic, and so I brought forth the idea of the bookmobile. They love the idea, but an actual bookmobile is a really big investment. This grant opportunity came up, and we felt it would be a really good way for a pilot program to see how a bookmobile would function in [00:08:00] Coventry.

After looking further into the idea, I thought we could not only bring books and materials into the community, but we could also bring our programming on the road. It would be an extension of our library building. I spoke a lot with Cheryl Space, the director of Providence Community Libraries, and they do a similar program over the summer. She was really helpful in helping to bring the idea to fruition.

Lauren: Great. I guess you talked about it a little bit, but what are the goals of the project?

Megan: Well, first, I'd really like everyone in town to know everything their library offers. We offer so many services, and there really is truly something for everyone. It's just getting the word out. I think this van, if they see us out and about town, it really helps to be more visible within the community. Second, I really want to reach those people who are unable to get into the library for various reasons and help them take advantage of our services.

Lauren: Great. What is your favorite service that the Mobile Library offers?

Megan: Well, I really love being able to issue library cards right from the van. I also love reaching the kids at the camp. They get really excited to see the librarian, so it's really fun.

Lauren: Is there anything else that you want to add, anything you want people to know?

Megan: It's a pilot program, and we're really hoping that it'll be successful, which so far, we've got some really good feedback. People are really liking the fact that we're out and about and bringing stuff into the community. Hopefully, it'll turn into a more permanent vehicle. Right now we're renting the van, but we're hoping that maybe it'll be part of our regular services that we provide.

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Lauren: I also spoke with Aliyah Harris, who is our summer outreach intern. She actually drives the bookmobile, which is great because none of us knew how to drive this big van, and we're very grateful that [00:10:00] she learned how to do it and is totally comfortable with it. She has been a great help to all of our staff at every stop, so I chatted with her as well.

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Aliyah Harris: My name is Aliyah Harris, and I am the summer bookmobile intern.

Lauren: When you first applied for the job, what interested you about the mobile library?

Aliyah: Well, I am interested in librarianship for a career. I've done school libraries, I've done public libraries, and so going out into the community was just another opportunity to test out my librarianship skills.

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Aliyah: It also gave me fond memories of camp. I remember when the bookmobile would come to my camp, and so I wanted to do that. Full circle. [chuckles]

Lauren: Oh, that's great. Is it what you expected?

Aliyah: A little bit. I didn't realize how hot it was going to be this summer, but you can never know that ahead of time. The kids are sweet. When they find a book that they really like, that's what it's all about.

Lauren: Yes, absolutely. Can you talk a little bit about how the library services are different at different locations since you've been going to all of them? For example, the first day at the housing authority versus the camps, can you talk about the differences there?

Aliyah: Well, of course, there's the difference in material. When we go to the families or the Senior Center, we bring out the digital kinds of materials. With the camps, we more stick to books. Well, for the younger kids, it's a lot easier because we're just giving them a book, and we don't have to worry about check-in and check-out. Although this week, they've surprised us with how many people actually did bring back a book so that they could [00:12:00] exchange it for a different one even when they didn't have to. That gives me some hope for the future when they get older, to practice that library skill of borrowing a book and bringing it back in a reasonable amount of time to get another book.

Kids know what they want. That's what I realized. We have a good selection of different things, and there's always a group, "Do you have Choose Your Own Adventure?" I was like, "Oh, yes, that would've been a good book to bring. No, we don't." We write them down so we'll know for the next time the bookmobile happens. Those are books that people are interested in. Yes, definitely, that's one of the things with going to the communities is getting people to come in.

This past week and a half, it's the word of mouth, so we're hoping for our next visits, it'll be a little bit busier. They'll get used to seeing it or hear it like, "Oh, where'd you get that book?" "Oh, bookmobile." The first day was like, "Hey, you guys want to come over?" They're like, "Oh, I think we're good." Some people would come over, but some were, "Ahh." Hopefully, once we're seen out and about, people will come and use the services.

I think it's been at least 12 new library cards made or something like that, so it's definitely getting out there. Then I know one person that came was like, "Oh, yes, I'm not driving right now, so this is great." He was able to give us some recommendations on like, "Could you bring this book next time?" I was like, "Okay. You know we're coming this day. We'll set aside a book for you."

Lauren: That's great to hear. Then my last question is, what has been your favorite stops so far?

Aliyah: I'm not sure. [chuckles] I guess I have good memories at all of them so far. One of the family communities, I threw a [00:14:00] football around with one of the kids while his older sister was making a library card, something like that was cute, or when they get excited that like, "Oh, I already have that book," or, "Oh, this book was great." Those are the reasons why I want to be a librarian. Getting to see that is great.

Lauren: Do you have anything else that you would like to say about the bookmobile?

Aliyah: If it's in your neighborhood or in your neck of the woods, come check it out. We're here. Come pick up a book.

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Lauren: Just to echo what Megan and Aliyah have already said, come out to see the bookmobile and let us know what you think. We hope you love it as much as we do. The Mobile Library visits Camp Westwood every Thursday and Friday from 9:30 to 11:30 AM, and it visits the Parks and Recreation Summer Kids Program on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM.

On August 3rd, the Mobile Library will be at the Coventry Senior Center from 9:30 AM to 11:30 AM. On August 17th, it will be stopping at two housing authority properties for families, Coventry Crossroads from 9:30 to 11:30 and Coventry Meadows from 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM. On August 24th, it will be stopping at two housing authority properties for seniors, North Road Terrace from 9:30 to 11:30 and Knotty Oak Village from 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM. We hope to see you there.

For more information about the Coventry Mobile Library, visit our website at www.coventrylibrary.org. Thanks for listening. Rhody Radio is a program of the Office of Library and Information Services and is made possible with support from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.

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