A sight that hasn’t been seen in Traverse City since the mid-1900s will soon reappear on local roads: a Traverse Area District Library (TADL) bookmobile, a mobile library on wheels delivering books and other materials to underserved rural residents. Rotary charities have given TADL a $ 50,000 grant to purchase the bookmobile – backed by matching library and donor funds – with the goal of hitting the road by the end of this year.
The TADL Bookmobile – a custom Sprinter van equipped with a ramp and carts with lockable shelves to keep books in place while in transit – is designed to provide area residents with equitable access to library resources. Even with six TADL locations, many rural northern Michigan communities are still at least a 20-minute drive from the nearest library. “Grawn, Blair, Long Lake and Acme are some of the communities that have requested branches,” says TADL director Michele Howard. “It’s just a lot of money to build a branch. It can help serve the townships… and if it’s really popular and generates enough interest, maybe we can see if there is a way to build a branch.
In addition to rural residents facing limited library access, the elderly, homebound, without transportation, disabled, or living in a group home environment may face even greater challenges. The new TADL bookmobile can be configured with different layouts and materials to meet the diverse needs of these groups, Howard says.
“We’re hoping to have three different types of setups,” she says. “The first is a traditional bookmobile with some carts that can be swapped out, as if we are visiting an age-based group or a group with an intellectual disability. Then there’s one for if we’re going to a nursery or children’s events, complete with puppets and STEM kits and children’s books. Finally, there’s a tech setup, which would include laptops, regular printers, and 3D printers, so we could go to a career fair or STEM event and have it all there. It’s also in the budget to equip (the van) with a WiFi hotspot, so that no matter where we are, we provide internet.
Howard says the bookmobile will likely have a fixed route and schedule throughout the region, in addition to accommodating special events and visit requests. “Every staff member wants to take it off, so we’ll probably have to do a lottery to see what the staff are driving,” Howard laughs. Reflecting TADL’s slogan of “not just books,” Howard envisions being able to offer material ranging from CDs to video games to musical instruments, and to help meet customer requests for specific materials in addition to ” have general navigation options. The bookmobile will feature a mix of rotating TADL materials and its own dedicated titles. TADL also plans to donate books to children – “studies show that even a single book in the home helps with literacy,” Howard says – and hopes to partner with other mobile agencies like the Bestie Valley Community Center. or the new GT County Veterans project. Mobile business office to coordinate outreach to underserved communities.
For older residents of northern Michigan, seeing a bookmobile on the road again is likely to awaken nostalgic memories. TADL had a bookmobile in the 1960s – Howard says they were popular across the country during this time – but the vehicle eventually fell into disuse and was scrapped. “So many people, when you talk about the bookmobile, have wonderful childhood memories of it stopping,” Howard explains. “To experience the wonder and excitement of ‘What book am I going to have today?’ The librarians are just as excited to drive the bookmobile and hand out books to people. I also hope it will remind people, seeing him on the road, the library and the importance of literacy.
A bookmobile resurrection has been on TADL’s wishlist for years, Howard says, but the pandemic heightened the sense of urgency as staff realized how dependent residents were on library services. “With the pandemic going on, no one could get into the library, and it brought us all home here how debilitating it is not to have access to the library,” Howard says. “It made us think of all the people who have never been here. We realized that we really needed to think about the presence of the library in the community. In January, we started our strategic planning process, and in a staff survey (on priorities), Bookmobile topped the list. While the cost of $ 100,000 or more for the vehicle was a deterrent in the past, staff this time around decided to try and get a grant from Rotary to cover half the costs. “We thought the worst thing they could say was ‘no’, but luckily they said ‘yes,’ Howard says.
With vehicle funding in place – although the library is always accepts donations for gasoline, materials and children’s books for the bookmobile – TADL is now in the phase where staff can start ‘shopping’ and ‘dreaming’, Howard says. The library receives quotes from dealers and customizers for the vehicle and develops programming and operating plans. Howard is hoping the bookmobile can be delivered in six months, potentially putting it on the road by the end of this year. The Bookmobile is just one of TADL’s many endeavors – from overhauling fines to offering remote registrations for library cards to exploring new technologies and materials – resulting from the innovation over the past year, according to Howard.
“We decided that people’s access to information during one of the most difficult times we have known was more important than our rules,” Howard explains. “When it’s all out the window and you realize you can’t take things for granted anymore, maybe we can try something new. “
In the photo: top row, examples of bookmobiles in other communities; bottom row, Traverse City bookmobile in 1964