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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Rolling Libraries


We usually think of libraries as staid and imposing edifices that grace the main streets of our towns, or elegant temples of knowledge that anchor our college campuses.

But some libraries refused to stay put.

This photo shows what is surely one of the earliest bookmobiles, a 1910 International Auto Wagon loaded with books. Its location is not known.

The tiny town of Adams could not afford to build a lovely Carnegie library so in 1929 two residents asked the North Western Railroad if it could donate a rail car to serve the purpose. An obsolete passenger car was rolled into town and parked permanently in a convenient location. Despite the Depression, the town managed to refurbish it and stock it with books, and in 1937 nearly 1,000 visitors borrowed 8,757 volumes.

The best known mobile libraries in Wisconsin were those started by the state's Free Library Commission during the Progressive Era. These were large wooden crates packed with books that opened up to stand erect as book shelves. Officials shipped them from Madison to small towns in rural areas all across Wisconsin, starting in the 1890s. Communities often formed study clubs or reading groups, and librarians back in Madison would assemble syllabi and discussion questions to ship out with the books. These would be set up in a post office, general store, or other convenient location and serve as the village library until they were needed by another community.

These "traveling libraries" served the same purposes as today's digital collections -- to get information off the shelves and into the hands of people who want it.

Those of us who grew up in rural areas probably have fond memories of visits from a bookmobile. But, as this article by Christine Pawley shows, the influx of new books and ideas was not necessarily welcomed by everyone.


:: Posted in Curiosities on January 13, 2011

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