LIBRARY ON WHEELS: A Charming History of the Bookmobile

Cindy: Does your local library have a bookmobile? If so, do you know who to thank?

Mary Lemist Titcomb is credited with launching the very first bookmobile—a horse-drawn wagon—made for the Washington County Free Library in Maryland in April 1905. In  Library on Wheels: Mary Lemist Titcomb and America’s First Bookmobile (2018), Sharlee Glenn rolls out its history in a beautifully designed book that is sure to find its way onto bookmobiles everywhere this year, and probably onto a few librarians’ personal shelves as well.

Mary Lemist Titcomb, born almost a decade before the Civil War to a poor New Hampshire farming family, was not a likely candidate for schooling beyond the eighth grade. But she loved learning, so her family allowed her to continue her education. Rejecting nursing and teaching, she learned of a new career field, librarianship, and moved to Concord, Massachusetts to apprentice in a library as an unpaid assistant.

After working as a cataloguer, then a chief librarian, she applied to serve as a librarian for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Her application was rejected by the president of the American Library Association. . . Melvil Dewey! Mary had not made herself known in the country or the ALA, so she took the challenge to do just that!

In an article, she gave this wise advice:

“…do all in your power to make the library useful.
Do not make the mistake of thinking children are of no consequence.
If there is any preference, let it be shown to them.”

As the experiment of public lending libraries gained traction, Miss Titcomb—now head librarian of that county library in Maryland—was not satisfied with just serving the rich adult town folk. She expanded services by adding one of the nation’s first children’s rooms. She rotated books to outlying schools, started story hours in remote areas, and established “book deposit stations” in 75 locations throughout the county. (Some of the stations resemble the popular Little Free Libraries of today.) Still, she was not satisfied that she was reaching everyone that she should, and so the bookmobile was born. I’ll leave that for Lynn while I mention our own district’s bookmobile service.

MEA Voice, Aug. 2017

Our school district’s teachers union, the West Ottawa Education Association, operates a summer bookmobile stocked with donated books and staffed by volunteers, many of them retired teachers. These include Cherie Versendaal, who has run the popular operation for 40 of its 42 years! Leave us a comment with your memories of a favorite bookmobile or a description of one currently operating at your library. We’d love to hear your #libraryonwheels story.


Lynn: Miss Titcomb believed that the library was for ALL the people in Washington County, yet more than half of the populace lived far from town. In 1905, she had an idea: “Why not fit a wagon with shelves and take the library to the people?” There were plenty of naysayers, but Miss Titcomb was a force of nature. Apparently, her board had learned that “when Miss Titcomb decided to do something, she did it.”

The book wagon was born, and over the next five years, it became an enormous success. Then in 1910, disaster struck: the book wagon was hit by a train! It was at that point that a donor stepped forward and provided funds for a “horseless carriage.” Soon, the book wagon became famous, and people came from all over to ride along.

This book is packed with wonderful historic photographs, illustrations, and ephemera that bring Miss Titcomb and her traveling library to life. One of my favorite sections shows pictures of the Washington County bookmobiles over the years, from 1905 to 2016. A fascinating author’s note describes Glenn’s research, and there is ample back matter including an extended bibliography. This charming story was a joy to read, and Miss Titcomb’s legendary idea lives on today with thousands of bookmobiles across the country.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

2 Comments on "LIBRARY ON WHEELS: A Charming History of the Bookmobile"

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  1. Hermayne says:

    What about the not so charming history of bookmobiles when African Americans were forced to used them because they were not welcome at the public libraries. Balanced coverage please!

    • Cindy Dobrez & Lynn Rutan says:

      Hermayne, Thank you for the links to that sad history. I’m sorry that you felt our coverage was not balanced. Lynn and I were reviewing the book in front of us, which focused on Mary Titcomb and her efforts to provide library service to children and to rural residents of her district who were not being served, including starting the first bookmobile service. Mary was working at a time when a college library degree was not available and when children of all colors were denied access to the library. She worked hard to change that, according to this book. It sounds like there is room for another book about library service being denied to African Americans (probably, sadly, in more ways than through alternate bookmobile service) but this book was not a complete history of the bookmobile.–Cindy

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