A Review of Bookmobiles in America by Orty Ortwein


This review was first published on Fourth & Sycamore

bookmobilesOrto Ortwein’s self-published Bookmobiles in America is a labor of love and represents one man’s passionate interest in a unique and disappearing service of public libraries. Many Americans over a certain age have memories of the local library’s bookmobile pulling up to their school, carrying an entire world of stories, adventures, and knowledge. Sadly, most smaller libraries have had to bid farewell to their roving buses of books, though many urban and metro libraries still have them. According to the book, bookmobiles peaked around 1965 when there were over 2,000 in the United States. Now there are fewer than 700. Bookmobiles in America traces the long and interesting history of these unusual vehicles and their role in twentieth-century American life.

Interestingly, Ortwein never visited (or more accurately, was never visited by) a bookmobile as a child. He explains in his introduction he lived within walking distance of a library and never had a need for one. He saw his first bookmobile as an adult and became fascinated with them. Personal curiosity soon became a professional research project. The book is extensively researched and provides a wonderful resource for anyone with an interest in public libraries or anyone who, like me, finds the ideas of a traveling library on wheels terribly romantic. My wife and I periodically daydream about buying our own someday, traveling from town to town peddling free books in exchange for a good song, a drink or taste of something local, a story, a hand-drawn picture.

While Bookmobiles is pretty obviously self-published–the print quality, font size, and stripped-down design all give it away–it is nonetheless well-organized and easy to read, avoiding most of the editing errors that often plague such volumes. Ortwein has done a good job providing a logical flow and quantity of information.

Bookmobile Old Color
One of Greenville Public Library’s old book chariots.

Among the things I found most interesting in Bookmobiles were the significant roles Indiana and Ohio libraries played in the emergence of bookmobiles in America (Fourth & Sycamore is run from a public library in west central Ohio). Five of the first nine bookmobiles in the U.S. were in Indiana, including the second American bookmobile in Plainfield, Indiana. Dayton, Ohio, was the first large city to have a bookmobile, with Dayton-Montgomery County Library spending $687 for a Ford One truck to turn into a bookmobile in 1923. The first bookmobile ever based out of a trailer was owned by Warder Public Library in Springfield, Ohio, just north of Dayton. Back then, as is sometimes still true now, there was not a lot to do in these parts, and books staved off the boredom.

Ortwein spends time highlighting many of the unusual forms mobile libraries have taken over the years, including horseback librarians in Kentucky, boxcar libraries in the logging camps of the Pacific Northwest, military libraries in Army trucks during World War II, and many more. One librarian in a remote area of New Mexico in the 1960s flew a small plane to a larger nearby town once every three months to bring back enough books to satisfy his patrons. Ortwein also looks at the changing roles of bookmobiles for modern libraries, such as providing mobile internet access for low-income neighborhoods.

Bookmobiles in America is a lot of fun to look through and very interesting to read. I would like to have seen better print quality for the numerous images, but otherwise, I have no significant complaints. If you love libraries and bookmobiles, check this book out.

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