Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Driving back in time with the Lancaster County bookmobile

I believe one of the most compelling stories in Pennsylvania's library history is the ongoing struggle to circulate reading material to rural communities. So I was thrilled to find a large cache of newspaper articles and photographs at the Lancaster Public Library (LPL) which document its efforts to reach customers in Lancaster County.

LPL wasn't the first library organization to reach out to smaller communities. Up until at least World War I, the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission, founded in 1899 and affiliated with the State Library of Pennsylvania (SLP), had been successfully distributing "traveling libraries" in Lancaster County. A traveling library was a small collection of handpicked books which was shipped out to a community for temporary use (for an excellent description of the traveling library phenomenon, see Joanne Passet's article in the Winter 1991 issue of Libraries & Culture). In Pennsylvania, books were typically packed in 2’ x 3’ oak crates which also served as bookcases. Any town or village in the Keystone State could obtain a traveling library, provided that 12 residents signed a form and were willing to pay $2.00 toward the cost of transporting each bookcase. They were deemed “trustees” of the traveling library, and one of them was designated a “librarian” who was responsible for circulating materials. The books were housed in post offices, general stores, public schools, and sometimes even in private homes. By 1910, the Commission was delivering books to thousands of people in 63 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties.

Since much of the Commission's work was accomplished through the State Library, it may have seemed economical to sunset the Commission. In 1919, it was abolished and its work was assumed by the State Library's Extension Department. However, judging from SLP's annual reports (which mention traveling libraries infrequently, if at all, in the 1920s and 1930s), it appears that the state curtailed such efforts in favor of providing technical assistance to townspeople who wished to establish and run libraries of their own. A 1917 law authorized existing libraries to contract with county governments to provide services to additional communities, and in 1931, legislation provided state aid to county libraries who did so. Depending on the population of the county, the state matched county funding by 20-125%. Thus, some libraries, including LPL, were encouraged to think and act outside city boundaries.

Although an 1911 pamphlet about the "aims, progress, and needs" of the library indicated that its constituency was both "Lancaster City and County, PA," in the years immediately after it was founded, the A. Herr Smith Library (as LPL was then called) focused its efforts primarily, if not exclusively, on the city. News articles published in the 1900s and 1910s, which reprint the librarian's quarterly and annual reports to the library board, never mention countywide efforts. However, shortly after Helen Umble became librarian, there was a new interest in extension. Based on the documentation I have found so far, it appears that Lancaster Public Library first began sending books out of the city in the summer of 1919, when it provided more than 200 volumes each to Ephrata and Mount Joy High School (New Era, September 19, 1919). A December 3, 1919 letter sent from a library employee to "Miss Schaeffer" at Ephrata High School accompanied the shipment, along with a "circulation book," "registration book," and stacks of applications and borrowers cards. Subsequent articles mention a "Marietta Branch" (for instance, see New Era, January 15, 1923), a "Columbia branch" (New Era, November 11, 1925),"deposit stations" at Columbia, Conestoga Center, East Petersburg, and Kirkwood (New Era, November 11, 1925), an "Elizabethtown Branch" (New Era, October 16, 1926), branches at Lititz and New Holland (New Era, November 1, 1940), and a library in Adamstown (New Era, October 22, 1945), created through partnerships between Lancaster Public Library and community or school volunteers.

As early as 1928, Umble began to argue for bookmobile service, rather than the small, drop-off collections Lancaster was then providing. In her report for the summer of 1928, she wrote "it seems to me that personal contact, however obtained, is always exceedingly valuable. In this, libraries having a book truck, or 'Parnassus on wheels,' have the advantage over the library, such as ours, maintaining rural deposit stations" (New Era, October 15, 1928). In 1931, as she prepared to resign her position, the 1931 county library aid act was passed, and Umble urged the board to apply for funding (New Era, September 15, 1931).

Throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, Lancaster faced challenges in maintaining its former level of service to the county. Documentation in LPL's files may not be entirely complete, but it contains dozens of confusing legal agreements between LPL, the City of Lancaster, the County of Lancaster, and the County School Board, some of which were signed, some not. The newspapers tell of instances when the School Board withdrew its annual appropriation and the City Council reduced its yearly commitment (for instance, see New Era, January 13, 1933). On at least one occasion, the new librarian, Margaret Critchfield, was placed in the unenviable position of publicly urging residents to contact their commissioners, or face losing free access to materials (New Era, July 8, 1933).

Despite or perhaps because of the ongoing inadequacy and uncertainty of funding, volunteers felt compelled to help. LPL's newspaper files speak of many small, ad hoc donations for county library service. But a particularly important gift occurred in 1936, when the Lancaster County Federation of Women's Clubs started to raise funds for a truck to distribute books to rural communities (New Era, February 27, 1937). A large donation by Effie Detweiler of Columbia pushed their effort over the top, and regular bookmobile service started in 1939 (New Era, November 11, 1938).

Lancaster's first bookmobile was a "panel" type truck converted for library service. The sides of the chassis lifted up to reveal about 1,000 volumes. There were writing shelves and a typewriter compartment so that the librarians could issue borrower's cards on the spot (New Era, undated, ca. May 1939). Some years later, LPL acquired a "walk-in" type that could comfortably serve patrons in all weather. Although the bookmobile only made its rounds once a month, within 3 years it had circulated more than 11,000 books. By its 10th anniversary, it had distributed more than 400,000 volumes (New Era, November 14, 1944, and May 1, 1949).

LPL has a variety of interesting newsclippings and photographs documenting its bookmobile service. One especially colorful article, published in the New Era on May 1, 1949, describes how women's clubs collected more than 25,000 metal coat hangers and turned them in for cash to buy new books. They also wrote and sold a "Friends of the Bookmobile Cookbook" (a copy of which I have yet to uncover). Perhaps the most interesting parts of the article describe "Miss Harsh," (Elinor Harsh) who began driving the bookmobile in 1941. Noted for her "warm friendliness," she was depicted as providing "a cup of coffee for a bookmobile patron on a cold day, or a glass of lemonade in the Summer," and had even "led the fast-moving evacuation of a group of book-borrowers from a farmyard and into the truck when an angry bull came around the house and started pawing up the grass." LPL's files also include publicity photos shot in 1956 or 1957, showing Harsh and her colleague Margaret Watson along their route, washing their hands at a public trough, eating lunch atop a plywood box they carried into the brush, and reading a story before a classroom of children. Among my favorites is a shot taken by someone seated behind the women as they drove. From this vantage point, one can see Lancaster County through their eyes: miles of rolling cornfields, occasionally punctuated by a farmhouse or church. One can't help but wonder what they were thinking about as their eyes scanned the road ahead.


  1. Thank you for this interesting article. Bookmobile service in Lancaster County is alive and well. We currently have a schedule of over 90 stops per month, many of them at assisted living facilities and retirement communities and also at Head Start and other pre-school classrooms around the county. We hope that we do those intrepid bookmobile ladies proud with our efforts to deliver library services around the county to those who may otherwise not be able to use one of the many excellent libraries our county now has.

    1. Hi there, Ed -- I am delighted that you read my blog! And glad to hear how LCL's bookmobile has expanded its service since the early days I described. I would love to hear more about it. Feel free (at least from me) to post more comments on this thread. I'd love to hear from you!