Bookmobiles once crisscrossed roads around the country to bring library resources to rural residents. Today, the number of bookmobiles has dropped from more than 1,000 in the 1990s to around 650 in 2018 according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, which studies public policy.
The Natchitoches Parish Library’s bookmobile is one of the survivors of the gradual decline in itinerant libraries. Along with its sibling, the school-mobile, the bookmobile offers library resources to residents who can’t travel to one of the two parish branches.
Dee Sanders is one of two employees tasked with operating the bookmobile. “Everything checks out just like you do at a normal library,” she says. She lists books, magazines and DVDs among the bookmobile’s offerings and illustrates its range of selections. “We have non-fiction over here. We have cookbooks over here,… they said they like westerns so we got some westerns ready for them.”
“We try to change out stuff on the truck constantly so patrons have new stuff to look at, so we’re always hopping back and forth,” says Sanders. Along with driving to destinations spanning the parish, she and her colleague, Danelle Hunter, stock the vehicle, check out books and take requests from library patrons. “I’ve been making flyers for new books that we have,” she says. “If they see something that we don’t have on the truck, we can put it on hold for them and let them know we got something new coming.”
Alan Niette is the library’s Community Outreach Coordinator. He explains that the bookmobile’s collection is maintained according to the same philosophy as the branch locations. “Our collection is patron driven. We’ll see what is checked out even down to the author, and when they have a new release we know we’re going to get hit for it, so we’ll get more copies,” he says.
Library Director Jessica McGrath clarifies that the bookmobile operates with an independent collection. “With the bookmobile and schoolmobile collections, it is assumed that those are withdrawals or discards from the main collection, but that is not the case,” she says. “Our acquisitions librarian purchases for the bookmobile and schoolmobile collections, so its not just left over.
“They have access to (the main branch) collection, but they also have a separate budget for specific requests,” says Niette “They have the phone number as well, so they can call and leave a message and say I want this title. It’s coming out. It’s a new release.” He explains that there are shelves at the main branch dedicated to the bookmobile. “The stuff in their collection that doesn’t fit on the bookmobile, they have a separate area to shelve those items so that they can come in and trade them out periodically.”
With the price of diesel having reached record highs, fueling the bookmobile has become more expensive, but there is no plan to reduce the program’s reach. Branch Manager Rosalind Parker explains they consider the bookmobile an essential element of their services. “We still have money in the budget. It may not be under gas, but there’s money,” she says. “We would have to cut the book budget, so that they could go out there, before we say you can’t put gas in the vehicles.”
McGrath confirms the library has no plans to end or disinvest from the bookmobile program, but indicates they review the routes frequently. “It’s not a stagnant schedule. We do look at it at least once a year to determine if changes need to be made,” she says. “Things happen where maybe the ability of a stop is not there anymore, or someone may request that we start (offering) a stop.”
Most of the bookmobile’s stops are in rural areas of the parish, where residents may lack the ability to travel to a branch location.
Apartment complexes, churches and community parks all host the bookmobile during its visits every two weeks, and people who frequent the sites often rely on the bookmobile for library services. Susan Vallee, co-owner of Little Eva Pecan House explains that her extended family enjoys checking out library materials and she advertises upcoming visits in her store. “We enjoyed them so much. People associated with our business took advantage,” she says.
Sanders also describes a few stops within the city. “We go to the assisted living. Usually, we’ll go there and do a little craft with the seniors and then they’ll check out books,” she says. “We also go to the community care nursing home once a month.” Accommodations are also provided for elderly care residents with mobility problems. ”The ones that can’t come to the truck, we just bring them some in for them to look at and they just tell us what they want.”
Other residents are accommodated by a service of the bookmobile called Library Express, which delivers library materials to patrons’ homes. “That’s more like a red carpet delivery service, so they will deliver to patrons directly to their door,” says McGrath.
“Library Express is for people who are homebound, either permanently or temporarily due to age or illness, or it could be temporarily from a surgery,” says Niette. “The idea that’s behind it is Natchitoches is a retirement community: people come here (and) they get older to a certain point, maybe they can’t drive or have health issues, so we still want them to have access to library services. We can bring them their books, magazines, audiobooks and DVDs,” he explains. “The sign-up form is available on our website.”
The schoolmobile is a sister service to the bookmobile. Its purpose is to offer library resources to students throughout the parish with a focus on rural schools. “Things change year to year, so different schools, they might have libraries, but maybe they haven’t been able to purchase new books in 10 or 15 years or maybe they don’t have a staff librarian so the kids can’t actually go to the libraries, so with this we’re there,” says Niette. “They’re usually scheduled to come out by class.”
The Natchitoches Parish School Board’s (NPSB) 2021-22 budget originally provided $3,648 for materials and supplies for its school libraries excluding subscriptions to periodicals. The amount was later halved after none of the funds had been spent as of June. Director of Personnel Linda Page indicated the school district had no vacancies for library positions as of Aug. 1, but could not confirm the operational status of specific school libraries within the district.
The schoolmobile serves private schools and daycares also, and each school is responsible for scheduling visits, which offers teachers the opportunity to request resources based on their needs. “If a teacher makes a request for a particular subject that they’re working on, the schoolmobile ladies will pull from the main collection to supplement their collection and bring the teachers sets on that subject,” says McGrath. “The teacher can check out the books and then she doesn’t allow the kids to take the books home, it’s more for use in the classroom, or they can decide to let the kids all get cards and then they can check books out and take them home.”
McGrath makes it clear the schoolmobile doesn’t take summers off. Instead, it serves summer school students and is enrolled in a youth storytime program. “Traveling Tales for the schoolmobiles during the summer was to local parks, apartment complexes, playgrounds (and) the Boys and Girls Club,” says McGrath. “We try to identify where the kids are and hit those spots.”
Both the bookmobile and schoolmobile help library staff maintain awareness of the programs they offer. “They’re also used as an outreach vehicle, literally a vehicle and figuratively,” says Niette. “We’ll go to the Farmer’s Markets or different community events or activities. Whenever we’re invited out to a festival or something we’ll try to take the bookmobile.”
Niette also explains the bookmobile and schoolmobile serve as a lifeline to communities during natural disasters. “When the hurricane came through last year the bookmobiles were used as a place where people could come and access the internet and get help filling out a request for FEMA,” he says. “We did that for a couple months.”
“A lot of people, like Goldonna and all that, they were out of power for a while. In Campti, I was out of power for a week,” says Sanders. “We do have wifi that’s on the truck so they can pull up in their cars and connect to the wifi too.”
The best indicator of the bookmobile and schoolmobile’s success is the library’s continued investment in the programs. McGrath reveals the library is seeing the most interest in its library express program and may soon purchase a new vehicle. “We are looking at possibly replacing one of the bookmobiles, so purchasing a new one within the next year or so,” she says. “The purpose would still be the same.”
Bookmobile and schoolmobile services essential in rural areas