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Vintage Photos of Traveling Libraries

When bookmobiles brought literature to your doorstep.

Children waiting at the Prince George's County Memorial Library, Maryland, 1951.
Children waiting at the Prince George's County Memorial Library, Maryland, 1951. National Archives/23932511

The New York Public Library, the Queens Library, and the Brooklyn Public Library have just introduced a novel program to turn New York’s subway system into a traveling virtual library: straphangers can now download and read books for free during their commutes. It is a high-tech iteration of the long tradition of the traveling library. In the 19th century, for example, lighthouse keepers waited for sailors to bring them wooden boxes of books. During the Great Depression, in parts of Mississippi and Louisiana, books were delivered on flatboats. And then there’s the familiar bookmobile though it was originally known by a far less catchy title: the “perambulating library.”

One of the earliest mobile libraries was the Warrington Mechanics’ Institution Perambulating Library in London. In January 1860, Illustrated London News noted the difficulty “of getting working men to wash their faces and come to the library bar and ask for a book.” Despite this, in its first year readers borrowed 12,000 volumes.

One of the earliest mobile libraries, the Warrington Mechanics’ Institution Perambulating Library, from <em>The Illustrated London News</em>, 1860.
One of the earliest mobile libraries, the Warrington Mechanics’ Institution Perambulating Library, from The Illustrated London News, 1860. Public Domain

Librarian Mary Titcomb is widely credited with introducing a horse-drawn book wagon in the United States—to rural Maryland in the early 20th century. “The book goes to the man, not waiting for the man to come to the book,” she declared. The arrival of motorcars in 1912 made the process a little easier (on the horses, at least), and the bookmobile as we know it was born.

One of the earliest book wagons in the United States, the Washington County Free Library, Maryland, c. 1905.
One of the earliest book wagons in the United States, the Washington County Free Library, Maryland, c. 1905. Public Domain

Traveling libraries have also been popular globally. The first mobile library in South Asia was a two-wheeled cart introduced in India in 1931. Today there’s a camel library that serves communities in northeastern Kenya. And in Colombia, there is the Biblioburro, a library transported by two donkeys.

A packhorse librarian leaving a cabin after delivering books, Kentucky, c. 1930s.
A packhorse librarian leaving a cabin after delivering books, Kentucky, c. 1930s. Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection/University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center

In the United States today, bookmobiles are declining in number but diversifying in scope. They now offer DVDs, classes, and, in some cases, computers and e-readers. To celebrate the legacy of the bookmobile and its modern incarnations, Atlas Obscura has this selection of vintage images.

A book van in New York, 1911.
A book van in New York, 1911. New York Public Library/Public Domain
Soldiers getting library books from a truck, Kelly Field Library, Texas, c. 1917.
Soldiers getting library books from a truck, Kelly Field Library, Texas, c. 1917. Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-105281
Mobile library, with the sign "County Library: We Want One," Rockville Fair, Maryland, 1928.
Mobile library, with the sign “County Library: We Want One,” Rockville Fair, Maryland, 1928. Library of Congress/LC-DIG-npcc-33353
A bookmobile in Germany, late 1940s.
A bookmobile in Germany, late 1940s. National Archives/23932383
The Hennepin County Library bookmobile in bad weather, Minnesota, c. 1950s.
The Hennepin County Library bookmobile in bad weather, Minnesota, c. 1950s. Courtesy Hennepin County Library/Public Domain
A bookmobile in Yangon, Myanmar (then Rangoon, Burma), c. 1950s.
A bookmobile in Yangon, Myanmar (then Rangoon, Burma), c. 1950s. National Archives/23932437
Coco Plum Woman's Club Public Library book wagon, Miami, Florida, c. 1948.
Coco Plum Woman’s Club Public Library book wagon, Miami, Florida, c. 1948. Courtesy State Archives of Florida
A bookmobile in Accra, Ghana, c. 1950s.
A bookmobile in Accra, Ghana, c. 1950s. National Archives UK/Public Domain
The Taos County bookmobile, New Mexico, 1941.
The Taos County bookmobile, New Mexico, 1941. National Archives/521857
The Benjamin Franklin bookmobile, Mexico City, 1953.
The Benjamin Franklin bookmobile, Mexico City, 1953. National Archives/23932428
Students lining up at the Leon County Public Library bookmobile, Woodville Elementary School, Florida, 1957.
Students lining up at the Leon County Public Library bookmobile, Woodville Elementary School, Florida, 1957. Courtesy State Archives of Florida