King County Library System (KCLS) mobile outreach service began with a single bookmobile bringing books to rural patrons in 1944. The fledgling library system had only a few small libraries and many rural patrons without easy library access. The early bookmobile served 10 routes and its users checked out about 300 books per day. A second specially constructed bookmobile was added in 1947. By 1950, the bookmobile service was covering 28 rural routes and accounted for nearly one-third of the library system's total checkouts. Bookmobile use gradually diminished over the next three decades, as new libraries were added all across King County. In 1979, KCLS replaced the traditional bookmobiles with Traveling Library Center vans. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, KCLS made a renewed commitment to outreach, purchasing 17 vehicles with funds from a 2004 bond issue. By 2017, the KCLS outreach program included Library2Go! book vans; Mobile Learning Labs computer centers; TechLab -- a mobile computer-classroom; and five Traveling Library Center trucks, which were, in essence, the modern equivalents of those original KCLS bookmobiles.
A Library on Wheels
The King County Rural Library District, later known as the King County Library System, was established in January 1943 after voters approved its formation the previous November. From its inception, KCLS considered a bookmobile an essential part of its service. When The Seattle Times described the new library system in January 1944, it also detailed one of the organization's key plans: "A 'Bookmobile,' a library on wheels, is being prepared for visits to crossroads, schools and farm communities. Books will be loaned out and gathered by the traveling librarian" ("7 New Branch Libraries ...").
The idea of a bookmobile wasn't new. The Seattle Public Library had operated bookmobiles since 1931. The federal Works Progress Administration had also operated bookmobiles throughout Washington during the Depression of the 1930s. The concept was simple: Not every rural resident had the means to come to the library -- the library had to come to them.
KCLS librarians Minnie J. Little (1895-1965) and Ella R. McDowell recognized this important fact, and organized bookmobile service early in 1944. The first KCLS bookmobile began rolling on July 13, 1944. By October 1944, it was serving 10 rural routes and had already become what The Seattle Times called "an institution in rural communities near Seattle" ("There Will Be Plenty of Reading ...").
"'My goodness, now we can get books all winter!' one patron exclaimed thankfully" ("There Will Be Plenty of Reading ..."). The bookmobile averaged 35 miles daily, and its longest route -- to Enumclaw in southeast King County -- was 85 miles roundtrip. Little was the bookmobile's head librarian, and she was assisted by driver Arvid Anderson and librarian Jacqueline Wieland. Patrons borrowed an average of 300 books each day from the bookmobile, which the staff affectionately nicknamed Belinda.
On the Road with the Bookmobile
A Seattle Times reporter rode along on a bookmobile trip in October 1944 and described the daily routine. First, Anderson pulled the "truck" up to KCLS headquarters and the librarians loaded it with boxes of books, some of which had been requested by patrons in advance by telephone. Then the truck hit the rural roads. It averaged seven stops each day, and visited each stop twice a month. At one stop at Duwamish, south of Seattle, a photographer snapped a photo of a pack of excited schoolchildren, running full tilt down the road "to see what new volumes Mrs. Little has brought. They are excused from class to get books" ("There Will Be Plenty of Reading ...").
Another photo showed a crowd gathered around the outside of the bookmobile. The sides had been opened up to reveal shelves of books. "In good weather, sides of truck swing out; on rainy days browsing must be done inside. Special requests are filled on return trip" ("There Will Be Plenty of Reading ..."). The shelves were equipped with a complicated set of straps which held the books in place while the bookmobile was in motion.
The bookmobile suffered a minor, although frightening, setback in October 1945. A "careless hunter" near Redmond let loose a stray shot that went right through the windshield of the bookmobile ("Hunter Scores ..."). Minnie Little and driver Ralph Raymond were in the bookmobile at the time, but were not injured. Speaking to a reporter a week later, Little laughed off the incident:
"We couldn't believe anyone was taking a shot at a librarian ... But you might tell the hunters that there is no bounty on us. A few more experiences like that, and we'll qualify for the extra-hazardous-occupation group" ("Hunter Scores ...").
In the summer of 1947, a new "$7,000 especially constructed vehicle" made its maiden run on the rural routes: This new bookmobile, nicknamed Tallulah, carried 2,200 books in "tilted shelves[,] which the builders have guaranteed will keep books from falling out on any kind of road" ("New King County Bookmobile ..."). No awkward straps were necessary. The new bookmobile averaged 1,110 miles per month and in its first four months distributed 35,000 volumes. The original bookmobile underwent some needed repairs, and then was retained as an auxiliary to the new one.
By 1950, a third truck was added, and the three trucks could cover 28 routes on set days every three weeks. People borrowed 286,000 volumes from the bookmobiles that year, nearly one third of the library system's total volume. However, a budget crunch the next year forced KCLS to cut back to two trucks, which meant less-frequent visits and a more complicated schedule. In August 1951, The Seattle Times again reported on a bookmobile trip. When the vehicle first pulled up in the Roxbury area south of Seattle, no patrons were in sight, and Little said, "I wonder if library patrons in this neighborhood have forgotten" (Howell).
She needn't have worried. The driver, Troy Filby, leaned hard on the horn. A woman several houses down rushed out her door lugging a box of 15 books, which she had borrowed at the last visit. Many more people poured in from nearby houses. One man asked if they had any information about dehydrating vegetables -- a request that showed that residents relied on the bookmobile for more than popular fiction and children's books. Little said she got requests for books on household plumbing, electrical wiring, raising rabbits, growing blueberries, and many other practical subjects. If the book wasn't on board, the librarians would find a copy and bring it next time.
A Lifeline for Readers
Reading for pleasure remained the biggest draw for most bookmobile patrons. Little said that one woman returned 29 books, all of which she had read in the previous three weeks. Another woman always showed up at the bookmobile with her wheelbarrow, which she used to transport her children and all of the books they borrowed. "Western novels and nonfiction books dealing with the West" were the most popular in 1951, although the librarians noted that they were sometimes able to coax patrons into "more serious reading" (Howell).
In 1954, KCLS was still operating just two bookmobiles. They continued to be a lifeline for many readers, including one woman who called to check whether her prospective new home was on a bookmobile route. She "certainly did not want to locate in an area in which the bookmobile did not stop" (Venema). Bookmobiles had now become common throughout the state; at least 24 were operating in Washington in 1954. That year a Seattle Times reporter once again went along for a bookmobile ride and recorded Minnie Little's call to action that morning: "Warm up the engine, Filby. I think we're ready to roll" (Venema).
In 1956, Little told a reporter that her rural customers were by no means unsophisticated readers:
"Rural children read just as do city children. ... In fact, the country adults are little different from the city folk. Look at the waiting list for Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson, Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk and the Pearl S. Buck books" (Clark).
Little added that children, although they accounted for somewhat less than half of the checkouts, "are our most critical customers ... because they know what they want" (Clark).
By 1956, the overall bookmobile demand had dropped slightly, at least partly due to success. The Seattle Times reported that nine or 10 KCLS libraries had "developed from demands created by the bookmobiles" (Clark). The community of Skyway, for instance, had organized its own library in 1953 because residents did not want to wait three weeks between bookmobile visits. Nonetheless Little told the reporter that "we could use two more bookmobiles," for a total of four, yet the budget still allowed only two (Clark).
Little retired in 1962, having devoted 18 years to the bookmobile service. By 1970, KCLS was back up to three bookmobiles, painted a distinctive blue, traveling about 30,000 miles annually and making 154 regular stops. Hard budget times arrived in 1974, causing the bookmobile service to be cut roughly in half, along with cuts to other KCLS services. Meanwhile, bookmobile usage continued to decline, mainly because KCLS had increased the number of libraries to more than 40.
In 1979, KCLS briefly suspended bookmobile operations entirely, in a move that The Seattle Times called "one of the biggest gambles in its 35-year history" (Green). The gamble did not pay off, since it quickly became evident that many King County residents continued to rely on the service. Later that same year, KCLS adopted a "compromise solution" (Green). Two 12-foot-long vans were outfitted to serve the remaining bookmobile customers and people in nursing and retirement homes. The vans were called "Traveling Library Centers," and that term began to replace the word "bookmobile," while a new overall name was applied to all of KCLS's outside-the-library services: outreach.
Outreach still included traditional bookmobile services -- sending books to customers outside of library buildings, via the Traveling Library Centers. Yet the focus gradually shifted away from rural communities -- many of which now had their own libraries -- to venues such as medical facilities, retirement homes, and senior centers. Outreach also included services to families and children, through visits to preschools and daycare centers.
As KCLS entered the twenty-first century, it made outreach one of its core principles. A $172 million capital bond issue in 2004 provided funding not only for dozens of new and expanded libraries, but also for 17 new outreach vehicles.
These vehicles, which were now a cheery red, instead of the traditional blue, fell into five categories, which reflected the varied scope of the outreach program. By 2012, KCLS had the following outreach vehicles:
- Five Traveling Library Center trucks -- similar to traditional bookmobiles, visiting mostly adult and senior facilities
- Five Library2Go! Vans -- essentially mini-bookmobiles, serving patrons of all ages
- Two ABC Express vans -- serving children and families at childcare centers, preschools, and apartment complexes
- One mobile TechLab -- a recreational vehicle containing eight computer stations, serving an increasing need to provide computer services and training classes for students and adults
- Four Mobile Learning Labs -- enclosed trucks containing seven computer stations each, providing homework help for students and learning opportunities for adults.
KCLS unified all of these services under the umbrella name of Library 2Go! This ambitious outreach program was one of the factors that earned KCLS the prestigious Library of the Year Award from Gale/Library Journal in 2011. A Library Journal story about the award detailed a typical Library2Go! visit:
"They pull into the driveway of one of those home day-care centers and the kids, most preschool-aged, come out and get materials. The librarians leave a cache of books. In the afternoon, they do the same at community centers, after-school programs, or senior centers. [KCLS director Bill] Ptacek sees the service to the day-care kids as the beginning of building lifelong library support. Kids who would never get to the libraries learn about them now" (Berry).
In 2014, the KCLS TechLab began paying visits to a community that practically embodied the term "underserved" -- Tent City 4, a homeless encampment. "KCLS provided frequent service throughout the year as the encampment moved from Sammamish to Bellevue to Redmond, where residents could take advantage of open computer time, one-on-one assistance and computer classes" ("2014 Year in Review," 32). The Library2Go! vehicles were also a common sight at many community fairs and festivals, fulfilling the KCLS goal of bringing the library to those who may not necessarily visit a library building.
As of 2017, the Library2Go! program included the vehicles described above, as well as several additional services. The Words on Wheels program delivered library materials to disabled residents of group homes each month, and the KidReach program delivered "Book Boxes," each holding 80 paperback books for primary-school-aged children, to childcare centers.
The KCLS outreach programs had obviously come a long way since the early days of Belinda the bookmobile. However, some beloved library terms have a way of persisting. In 2012, when KOMO News ran a story about the trucks being grounded briefly, it did not call the vehicles Library2Go! vans or Traveling Library Centers. It called it them "bookmobiles" (Markovich) -- an homage, even if unintentional, to the service's earliest roots.