Provenance the Web Magazine -
ISSN 1203-8954 - Vol.2 No.3 Winter 1997
A History of Vancouver's Bookmobile
In 1950, the Vancouver Public Library considered the idea of establishing Bookmobile service, a library on wheels, to serve residents in outlying areas. At that time there were only seven branch libraries in Vancouver, which meant libraries were not readily accessible for many of the city's residents. The Bookmobile's route was to include such distant stops as Granville and 67th, 10th and Sasamat, and the Fraserview Community Centre.
In May of 1954, the Provincial Government provided $34,954 for the purchase of the first Bookmobile. However, the service wasn't out of the financial woods yet. In the spring of 1955, the Library Board presented City Council with an operating budget of $14,000 to run the Bookmobile for one year. At that time, Council was looking for areas to cut back and rejected the request. In August the Board went back to Council, this time with a request for $5,000 to support operations until the end of the year. Again Council rejected this request, and many Board members began to fear that the government would reclaim the bookmobile. Eventually the funding problems were sorted out, and the Bookmobile's budget became a standard part of library operations.
It wasn't until March of 1956 that the service got underway, with the official opening held at Broadway and Commercial. Area residents had hoped for a full library facility for their neighborhood and were not completely happy with the new service. Over time residents did come to enjoy the personal aspects of the mobile library, and the Bookmobile staff found a place in the hearts of communities all over Vancouver. People found it easy to make friends with the small staff whom they saw each week. Over the years it became common practice for library patrons to bring special treats, and even dinner invitations, to the staff on their weekly stops.
This first bookmobile was a large, tangerine-colored, truck made in Hamilton, Ontario. The interior, fitted with shelves that ran the length of each side, held a cargo of 2,000 books. Borrowers would enter at the front of the truck and work their way through the bookmobile -- children's and young readers' books on one side, adult selections on the other -- until they came to a counter near the back. At this counter the librarian would feed the borrower's library card into the recordak machine along with the punch card, book card and date card (as in a regular library). After the book was processed, the borrower would exit through the rear side door. At Christmas time, the librarians displayed a small, decorated tree on the counter.
Initially the Bookmobile staff had office space in the basement of the Collingwood Library. It was here that the traveling library kept its collection of 18,000 volumes. The Bookmobile and the Collingwood library ran individually, as two separate libraries, at this time. Years later the two merged and the bus became known as Collingwood Mobile.
Occasionally the Bookmobile would welcome a practicum student from Langara's Library Technician program. During these practicum periods, the student had an opportunity to learn library duties, while at the same time gain a great deal of practical knowledge in Public Relations.
The original five day per week service was eventually extended to six days, but was cut back to five again in the mid 70s. Monthly circulation was usually around 13,000 volumes and peaked at 27,000 in the 1960s. Between March and December of 1956, the Bookmobile circulated 114,000 volumes. When the librarians weren't checking books out, the public kept them busy answering questions. The staff answered up to 600 reference questions each month.
At each stop a library user could request books that the bookmobile did not carry. Filling these requests meant constantly going through the huge collection in the Collingwood basement, taking new books out on the road the following week. The librarians modified the stock daily, changing the books according to the scheduled stops. This meant knowing the many differences in local populations. Some areas consisted largely of young families, while other areas housed mainly older residents. One area might have more gardeners, while another area might have more mystery readers or students. The librarians reflected all these differences in the selections they chose for their daily runs. Often the librarians found it necessary to arrive at work early in order to have enough time to prepare the shelves for the new day.
The length of time the Bookmobile stayed at each stop depended on the demand in the area. Some stops were as short as 30 minutes, while others were as long as three hours. Upon arriving at each stop staff would find borrower's lined-up, sometimes half a block long, waiting to return books and make new selections. People would wait in line up to 45 minutes for their turn inside the magical bus. Yet the librarians found that when the people at the end of the line did finally get their turn, they were usually good-natured about the wait. Some nights had a heavier turnaround than other nights. Tuesday evening was traditionally very busy, with up to 1,000 books exchanged. On these nights the recordak machine, which could take up to 300 cards per hour, would run at full speed to keep up with demand.
The Bookmobile traveled around Vancouver for 35 years, filling gaps not only in the public library system but in other systems as well. School libraries were often small and some public schools, as well as some Catholic schools, enjoyed the benefits of the traveling library. One day each week, students and teachers would file through the Bookmobile. Each class would have 15 minutes to browse or exchange books. Also on the route were several seniors' homes. This was a valuable resource for many people who may otherwise not have been able to get to a library. All together, the bookmobile made 18 to 20 stops each week.
On occasion, mechanical problems would strike and the bus would go to the Manitoba Yards for servicing. Since there was no way to let people know that the Bookmobile would not be making its scheduled rounds, the staff member who owned a car would drive the other librarians along that day's route, informing those waiting of the disruption in service. Once out on the route, the librarians could still deliver the previous week's requested books, take new orders for the following week, and collect the returns from each stop. So, while the public could not browse for new books, many of the other services ran as usual.
The popularity of the Bookmobile was demonstrated in October of 1956 when its generating plant failed, leaving the bus without electricity. Shopkeepers and homeowners alike came to the aide of the Bookmobile. All along the route people let the librarians plug extension cords into available outlets, which allowed service to continue, uninterrupted, until the problem could be repaired.
In 1969 the library retired the old tangerine colored truck and a new, 30 foot long, Bluebird school bus took its place. Artist Douglas Tait painted the exterior with swirls of emerald green, white and brilliant blue. David Ferguson designed the interior with carpeting and bright colours. The idea behind the vibrant new look was to appeal to kids and show them that a library was a fun place to be. VPL spent one thousand dollars on new books for the bus. The Bookmobile now carried a total of 3,000 volumes and a staff of three librarians.
By the late 1980s there were 21 branch libraries around the City, and the need for the bookmobile was diminishing. Service was slowly cut back to one day per week. Bookmobile librarians spent the other four days of the week working for a community service called Outreach, which operated from the basement of the Kitsilano branch library.
For years the Bookmobile had two stops at False Creek, one at each end. False Creek residents felt so strongly about the need for the Bookmobile's services that they petitioned (unsuccessfully) to keep it running.
The library retired the blue and green bus at the end of 1990 and held a farewell party at False Creek. Newspaper reporters in attendance interviewed the Bookmobile's first librarian, Margaret Dinwoodie, who was invited back to make the final run. After the celebrations the Bookmobile was sold at auction. Some people have since spotted the bus around Deep Cove.
Many people don't realize that Vancouver still has a library on wheels. Today, Outreach librarians deliver talking books and print books to visually and physically impaired readers and shut-ins. The librarians also make weekly "deposits" of books to care facilities around the city. The bus and the user group may be smaller, but the philosophy of the Bookmobile has survived. Librarians are still making sure that books get out to those who cannot get out to the books.
I would like to thank Sheila Brown, Margaret Dinwoodie and Nancy Pincombe for allowing me to interview them while gathering information for this report.
Nora Schubert © October 27, 1997