This Is Not Your Parents’ Bookmobile – An Interview

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post for the ITI Books blog and received a comment that sent me on a search for more information. I know, I know, many a librarian adventure starts the same way. This comment led me to learn about a fabulous project in my own hometown.

The comment was from two Houston librarians who are running an indiegogo program for a bookmobile. I have been around, as a patron and an employee of, public libraries for my entire life and I have watched bookmobile use decline. I was curious what in the world these two librarians thought they could do to change the trend.

Go read the Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library web page. There you will find a history of bookmobiles in Texas and why Kelly and Chris are so passionate about starting one in Houston. Caveat Lector: Their passion is contagious.

Before reading the BPTL story, I would have told you that bookmobiles were a dinosaur of the library world, but now, my view is different. I believe Kelly and Chris have found a way, not only to reguvenate a flaundering service, but to impact all public libraries in the Houston area and change the way we view book lending.

I wanted to know more about the BPTL so I emailed Kelly and Chris, who were kind enough to answer some questions. Read their answers and then go donate to their indiegogo campaign.

(1) I read the history of bookmobiles on your site, but why do you want to start a bookmobile? What makes this version of a library appealing to you?

I think ultimately it comes down to independence and mobility. We’ve both worked in different library systems and information organizations, and we’ve both had situations where policies and budgets have caused issues or restrictions. In creating our own library, we have the freedom to make judgment calls as to how, when, and where we serve individuals. If we recognize an opportunity for service or a new system we want to try out, we can make the decision to go for it without too great a fear of consequences.

Being mobile is another source of independence. It allows us to go beyond traditional library services and bring new resources to new people in new places. This is especially exciting because it allows for instances of serendipity and discovery – our bookmobile is a way for people to break out of their normal routines and allows for new avenues of personal and cultural connections in our community. People who may not make the conscious decision to visit a library may make that spur of the moment decision to visit the bookmobile next to their neighborhood coffee shop.

It’s this mixture of creativity, independence, mobility, and community that really appeals to us.

(2) Bookmobiles were originally for people who were underserved by other resource areas, often in rural communities. What role does a book mobile have in a metropolitan area like Houston?

True, bookmobiles were originally used to provide library services in underserved, and often rural, areas. And although being in a metropolitan area does not necessarily imply that a community is well-served, our purposes are not so cut and dry as to provide resources for folks that don’t have resources readily available to them.

Our bookmobile intends to serve two purposes: one, as a traveling library that works on a rent-barter-donate system and provides a variety of traditional and emerging library services; and two, as a bookmobile-for-hire which lends its space out to all mutually interested parties for mutually agreeable means. These two components will fill different roles in metropolitan Houston.

As a traveling library, we will undertake the role of a standalone cultural institution – one which intends to bridge the gap between consumer culture and culture by promoting a more frugal consumption of culture. One can consume a good book, or a good movie, or a good album without buying or otherwise owning it.

The traveling library will also serve a complementary role to libraries in a couple of key ways. Like many libraries, our collection will depend heavily upon in-kind donations. Those items which are not selected to be added to our collection will either be (1) re-donated to local libraries and charity organizations such as Salvation Army and Goodwill or (2) placed in our free bin, free for the taking.

We will also have applications on hand for membership at surrounding local libraries. City- and county-run libraries obviously have larger collections and generally better access to resources than we could independently offer, so in cases where our services cannot meet a patron’s need, we can direct them to a larger system that will be able to meet that need (including interlibrary loan).

You may be wondering, why don’t these patrons just go to their local library in the first place? It’s a fair question, and one that we find ourselves asking as well.

First, our business model is a little bit different than that of city- and county-run libraries, and one that might have more of an appeal to certain people. We’re less restrictive. For example, there are no due dates or late charges. There is only a (very reasonable) item-based annual membership which ensures that we don’t lose money if a patron never comes back with the item or items they borrowed. We also believe that you should be able to read a book the way you want to read a book. If you like reading a book with a highlighter or a pen in your hand, we encourage you to do so. We like a book with character. So long as the next person can read it as perfectly as you were able to read it, you can write and draw all over it.

We also want to appeal to the individuals who are not using their local libraries. As you mentioned in the question, traditional bookmobiles were used to serve the underserved – most commonly, children, the elderly and homebound, and rural communities. There’s a preconceived notion of who a bookmobile should serve based on mobility and location limitations. But now it seems many people who do not fall into these traditionally served populations are not seeing the appeal of libraries. We want to be an ambassador for all libraries and help revitalize how they are seen by the general public. People who are using libraries already love libraries and know what libraries can do for them. We want to raise awareness about what libraries have to offer for everyone and make sure people know that libraries are more relevant now than ever before.

One particular avenue to serving this role is through the food truck community – offering literary and music and movie and library culture to complement food and foodie culture.

The bookmobile-for-hire could very possibly be hired by libraries that serve rural communities and utilized to perform a similar function that bookmobiles have traditionally performed. But more likely, a library would rent the bookmobile to undertake this same role: of raising awareness, particularly among Houston’s mobile community (and who in Houston isn’t a part of that?), of the importance of libraries, and more particularly of the importance of their library.

(3) Besides borrowing, you mention organizations being able to rent out the book mobile. What do you mean by that? Can you give me an example?

With the bookmobile-for-hire component of our endeavor, we will empty our shelves and make our space, our time, and our professionalism available to all mutually interested parties for whatever (mutually agreeable) purposes they see fit. One organization that could naturally benefit from a bookmobile-for-hire is the public library.

As mentioned in our blog, the entirety of Texas had only 12 bookmobiles in 2005 (as reported by the State Department of Education) and the number of reported bookmobiles dropped to 8 in the 2009 Public Libraries in the United States Survey. Considering that Texas is third among the states in number of public libraries (with 559) and is second in land area, there is a very real gap in library resources and library services.

We both have substantial experience working in public libraries and understand that there is a need, particularly among smaller library systems, to widen their patron base and to let folks know about the range of services they provide. By bringing the library to the community instead of waiting for the community to come to the library, our bookmobile will help them accomplish just that.

I imagine our collaboration with public libraries would most commonly take the form of a library card drive, where we would work side-by-side with representatives from a given public library to sign folks up for library cards, and then direct their new members inside the bookmobile, where they can choose from a selection of materials the library hand-picked to represent itself. In these scenarios, I imagine that the library’s ILS is on a laptop they’ve brought along, so registration is basically the same process, just mobilized. But it’s pretty easy just to keep a spreadsheet of what’s been checked out and by who and to manually enter it into an ILS afterwards.

While our space is likely most amenable to public libraries, we would be crazy not to make it available to other interested parties (school & academic libraries, museums, artists & art galleries, bookstores, etc.) for pop-up shops & galleries, exhibits, and the like. Part of the appeal of this bookmobile-for-hire model is the potential for the bookmobile to be a sort of incubator space, where individuals and organizations can try out new ideas and new services.

(4) What is your goal for the project? Short-term? Long-term?

The sort of loftier, more theoretical goal is to see if this sort of model works and how this could be applied to the larger library world – can we pool library services and be more involved in resource sharing? With the current challenges libraries are facing, it would be great to find another way to pool resources for the larger good of a community or area. Short-term, we are really just focused on getting this operation on the ground and moving. We’re trying to spread the world both locally and globally (online) to get people excited about this venture so when we get up and running, we’ll have the social foundation to really engage with our communities.

Ultimately, the goal is to establish the BPTL as a legitimate long-term business. But we’re not kidding ourselves. We both currently have full-time, decent-to-well-paying jobs inside of libraries with great benefits, and we’re not prepared to let that all go on the chance that our project really takes off. So for now, we are cautiously approaching it as a hobby, but a long-term hobby, and we’ll see where we go from here.

(5) Can you tell me your names and something fun about each of you? I know you both went to UT for your library degrees and that is about it.

We are Kelly Allen and Chris Grawl.

Something telling about us is the fact that we met in UT’s iSchool while librarians-in-training. We were in the same Social Media for Information Specialists class, both needed a group partner for an upcoming presentation, and the rest is history. We also had our first date on Hourly Comic Day, so the beginning of our relationship (and every anniversary since then) is well documented with poorly drawn comics. I don’t think anyone is especially surprised that we’ve come up with this idea, especially given our combined personal libraries… when we moved into our current apartment back in February, I think we made multiple trips for books alone.

Random fun facts about Kelly: My first “professional” position was as a cruise ship librarian for four months. I love zombies and I developed a descriptive schema of zombie films for one of my class assignments. I took Latin classes in middle school and high school, upgraded to “easy Latin” or Italian in college when I studied abroad in Pisa and Rome, and am now sadly out of practice with both. I’ve accidentally had dinner at a diner with Ben Folds (of Ben Folds Five fame). While I like cooking and trying new recipes, I like eating at food trucks even more. My background is in the social sciences so I have a huge interest in language, learning, and brain development. My first job at 16 was at the public library in my hometown (Tulsa, OK). I’m three days older than Chris.

Random fun facts about Chris: I was born and raised in the Greater Houston Area. I wasn’t really raised inside of libraries. Instead, my fondness for libraries started at the age of 20, when I got a job at my school’s (Southwestern University) library the Summer after my sophomore year. I haven’t really stopped working in libraries since. I received a capital-L Liberal Arts degree from Southwestern with a double major in American Studies and Mathematics. I like making lists and mixtapes. I enjoy basketball, table tennis, foosball, and bowling. I’m a diehard Rockets and Texans fan. I actively seek out the best in music, books, and movies. My favorite album is In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I’m not certain what my favorite book is but my favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut. My favorite movie is The Graduate. I’m three days younger than Kelly. We live in Montrose with our two cats, Clancy and Nora, and my bowling ball, Bertha.

–Jane, BPTL, sharing a love of the written word with Houston and the world