It Came from the Archives: Bookmobiles provide books to rural folks

Wayne Love, Director of the George S. Houston Memorial Library, ca. 1982, Doug Snellgrove Photographs, RG 099, Wiregrass Archives

Sometimes, an item buried in a collection is all a researcher needs to launch a tale.  A pair of ca. 1982 photos of the Houston Memorial Library bookmobile are responsible for today’s post.

Doug Snellgrove Photographs, RG 099, Wiregrass Archives
Doug Snellgrove Photographs, RG 099, Wiregrass Archives

Bookmobiles are 20th century ways for city-based libraries to serve rural patrons.  Bookmobiles harken back to 1902, when Hagerstown, Maryland, librarian Mary Titcomb created “deposit stations” – crates holding 30 to 40 books each – in rural stores and churches, much like today’s Little Free Library program.  Within a few years she managed 66 deposit stations in her county.

Marion Neill, The Dothan Eagle, March 18, 1949
Marion Neill, The Dothan Eagle, March 18, 1949

To expand her library’s reach to even more isolated families, Titcomb secured a grant from the Carnegie Foundation in 1905, outfitted a wagon with bookshelves, and hired the library custodian (who had been a peddler and knew all the then-unmarked county roads) to ride circuit.  The experiment lasted until 1910 when a train collided with the wagon, but in 1920 the library updated to a motorized bus.

Bookmobiles spread like improved roads, slowly and mostly in places with sufficient public funding.  But something else slowed their spread:  the slow change from subscription libraries to free libraries.  Until the 20th century, libraries ran on funds generated by memberships and on donations.  Until people considered them to be public benefits, the expense and logic of providing bookmobiles didn’t work.

Dothan’s bookmobile is intimately linked to the city’s change from a subscription to a free library in 1949.  That year, the Dothan Service League, organized only three years earlier by women interested in civic improvement, donated $2,700 for a bookmobile.  Dothan’s first degreed, full-time library director was Marion Neill, from Sandusky, Ohio, who was lured by Auburn friends to move south, and who had spent three years as the bookmobile librarian for Florence, Alabama.

Dothan's original bookmobile, The Dothan Eagle, February 17, 1949.
Dothan’s original bookmobile, The Dothan Eagle, February 17, 1949.

Dothan’s first bookmobile was a Chevy with a rear door and side panel opening that carried 800 books, magazines, films, and phonograph records that rural patrons could check out.  The bookmobile’s inaugural trip on April 4, 1949, ran from Dothan west toward Wicksburg with stops at Reynold’s Store and Pilgrim’s Rest Church (County 32).  Five other routes went south down the Panama City Highway (US 231), southeast along Cottonwood Road (AL 53), north along Headland Highway (AL 211), east to Ashford (US 84), and northeast to Columbia (AL 52).

Ms. Neill promised the bookmobile would become well known in Houston County, but it was also well-liked.  A month after its first trip, a Dothan Eagle reporter wrote that “a score of youngsters” stopped by at the bookmobile’s Cowarts stop (population 200 in 1960) and quoted a resident saying “This is one of the best things that has happened. The people are really going for it.”[1]

In 1956, the Library hired Wayne Love to drive the bookmobile.  Dr. Love became such a well-loved library director that the library added his name to its own, becoming the Houston-Love Memorial Library when he died in 1983. Dothan bought a new bookmobile in 1957 with a capacity of 1,500 books, and upgraded to a 3,000 book GMC in 1967, the bookmobile in the photo that spurred this story. By 1971, the bookmobile traveled almost 1,000 miles per month and circulated 194,000 books per year.

The Dothan-Houston County Library System now considers the bookmobile to be a branch.  It still circulates materials for all age groups and interests, and has kept up with the times by delivering materials reserved by distant patrons, providing a mobile wifi hotspot, and offering laptops for use on its stops.

The Dothan Houston County Library System continues the tradition begun by the city in 1949 – providing library services to the rural public and to those who cannot reach it otherwise.

[1] “Bookmobile Liked,” Dothan Eagle, May 1, 1949, 3.