As libraries turn the page on bookmobiles, something is lost

Anyone who has spent time on a bookmobile has learned enough to know nothing withstands the change of time.

Still, we lament the slow passing of bookmobiles from our communities. Most recently, the Warren-Newport Library in Gurnee discussed ending neighborhood service with its bookmobile. That follows a long nationwide trend. The number of bookmobiles declined from nearly 1,125 nationwide in 1991 to fewer than 650 in 2019.

Many people fondly recall bookmobiles as rolling sanctuaries where they learned their love of books. The vehicles were popular with children and with adults whose physical limitations made it hard to get to a central library or branch. Today, the remaining bookmobiles bring books, magazines, DVDs, videos, video games, CDs and audiobooks to schools, parks, senior citizen homes and neighborhoods. They are a godsend for people with limited internet access.

Bookmobile librarians would get to know their patrons and would make a special effort to bring materials those patrons were interested in. The mobile libraries were a treasure for people who, say, might be caring for an aged parent in their homes and could not easily head off to the main library. The bookmobiles brought materials to students that weren’t in the school’s libraries. They made stops in areas of communities that were far from the main or branch libraries. Many users described their bookmobiles as a lifeline.

The American Library Association says bookmobiles have served rural, urban, suburban and tribal areas for more than 100 years. But one by one, the bookmobiles have been disappearing like characters in an Agatha Christie novel. Des Plaines discontinued its bookmobile in 2011 after 42 years. Palatine retired its bookmobile in 2014. The Indian Trails Public Library District, which serves Wheeling and Prospect Heights, retired its bookmobile in 2010.

Services and materials available to patrons online have grown significantly. Patrons have access to digital library resources, such as downloadable ebooks and subscription learning tools. When it comes to budget-balancing time, it’s not surprising some library directors think it’s time to park the bookmobile permanently.

In their heyday, bookmobiles brought communities together and encouraged reading. We know times are changing, but we feel a pang each time another bookmobile drives off into the sunset.

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