In the age of eBooks, its demise wouldn’t be a surprise – and yet in some places the mobile library is thriving
In our digital age of Wi-Fi, eBooks and iPads, the concept of a mobile library could seem archaic to some. After all, you could probably download all the books contained within a mobile library before it has had time to heave itself out of its parking space. So reports that the actor Alec Baldwin – a native of Massapequa, New York – has paid $1,000 for his local “bookmobile” so he can use it as a children’s playhouse, could indicate that the death of the mobile library is, ahem, overdue.
But Mike Brook, treasurer of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals’ Branch and Mobile Libraries Group, says that at the last count, in 2003, there were 656 mobile libraries in operation across the UK, down from 719 in 1990.
“The ones with onboard computers targeting residential homes and silver surfers are doing really well,” he says. “Birmingham city council’s Words on Wheels has been a hit with the local schools. And remote rural areas always welcome the mobile library. Good livery is very important. For example, Coventry city council’s mobile library has ‘The book stops here’ written on the side.”
A mobile library typically carries 1,500-3,500 books, according to Brook. “Half of the stock is adult fiction, with the rest usually made up of popular non-fiction, such as gardening and cookery.”
As Baldwin’s purchase shows, many mobile libraries go on to enjoy an active retirement, too. A brand new vehicle will cost as much as £120,000, but you can pick up a secondhand model for £2,000-£25,000, according to Joe’s Garage in Harrogate, which specialises in renovating old mobile libraries. “They so adaptable,” says the owner. “They’re like Swiss army penknives on wheels. We even turned one into a mobile casino once.”