The Start of Bookmobile Service
Bookmobile service and outreach in the community have been integral to Harris County Public Library since its earliest days. Library service remained out of reach for many residents of rural Harris County in the early 1920s. In addition to establishing library stations across 26 schools and communities during the first year, the first County Librarian Lucy Fuller implemented a bookmobile program. Librarians traveled hundreds of miles each month to distribute books to rural communities throughout Harris County. In 1925 alone, librarians drove 13,000 miles and made 438 visits to branches and stations.
During those first few years, librarians drove in vehicles ill-equipped for the bumpy, dusty roads and without adequate overhead protection from the rain. In the middle of 1925, the library finally received additional money to purchase a vehicle with a roof.
Two county librarians outside a book car on a county road in 1929. A box holding library books sits on the running board. Staff used simple boxes to transport the books around the county to protect the books from being damaged while in transit.
The county librarian researched other bookmobile programs to see what type of vehicles were preferred. Vehicles with built-in storage were of interest, as they provided better browsing options for the public.
Seen here is an early book car in Bexar County, used to serve the San Antonio area's rural population in the 1920s. Other examples included a bookmobile that served the Bronx borough of New York City.
Book Wagon Design – 1937
In 1937, a new book wagon was launched to great success. Its first trip out on the road was August 10th on a route along Bay Shore. Gone were the boxes full of books - the new vehicle carried books on built-in shelves. The entire experience was vastly improved for everyone; browsing was easier for patrons, and transporting the collection was more efficient for the library staff.
The bookmobile service had eight routes with a total of 35 stops, including 16 rural schools. No route had more than eight stops, and stops varied in length from 30 minutes to two hours. Every trip included two library assistants and one chauffeur. The library assistants tended to the book selection in the bookmobile and patron selection while the chauffeur discharged books and registered new borrowers.
James Faulk was the first bookmobile driver.
The book wagon featured shelving on the inside as well as the outside of the vehicle.
1938 - Expansion, Inside and Out
In 1938, the book car's mileage reached 16,059, and the mileage for the book wagon was 11,853. The book wagon is seen here at the Westfield stop.
By 1946, the bookmobile route consisted of eight routes with a total of 39 stops. Requests for a new bookmobile were made in 1947, but the funding was not provided that year. In 1948, $7,218 was requested for a new bookmobile, and Commissioner's Court approved the project. Ace Distributing Company received the contract and the new bookmobile was delivered to the County Library on December 14, 1948.
The new vehicle had a capacity for 2,000 volumes. It made its first trip on January 3, 1949, visiting the Channelview School and Greens Bayou community. By the end of the 1940s, the bookmobiles traveled to 34 stops, including nine at schools, every two weeks. The new bookmobile was on exhibit at the Harris County Fair at Tomball from September 16-17, 1949.
Until 1952, the bookmobile was on a two-week schedule; however, increasing demand from patrons and communities led to more stops being added to the routes, including 35 community stops and 26 school stops. The increase in stops without any increase in bookmobiles meant that the time between visits extended to every three weeks. In 1953 there were 2,005 new borrowers registered at bookmobile stops during the year, and daily circulation frequently exceeded 3,000 checkouts.
Because of this heavy usage, a request was put to the Commissioner's Court for an additional bookmobile in 1954. By September, the Library received a second bookmobile (seen here). This model could hold 1,800 volumes and was the County's first air-conditioned bookmobile. Jane Chapman was the bookmobile supervisor at the time.
Interior of the new bookmobile. Patrons lined up to board and browse the collection on shelving built into the walls.
In the 1950s, librarians and staff dressed up themselves and a bookmobile on Go Texan Day to celebrate the start of the year's Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
Further expansion of the bookmobile program stalled in 1961. That year the book budget was reduced from $25,000 a year to $20,000. County Librarian Mary Butler Owensby transferred money for a new staff member to the book budget: "We have decided that we had rather work a little harder ourselves and have more money to buy books."
The Library had requested funds for a new bookmobile, but the project was put on hold for a few years given the budget cuts. However, it was clear that bookmobile remained very popular with patrons. Librarian Lydia Stiles is quoted at the time in a Houston Chronicle article: "When the bookmobiles go out in the morning, they are so full we have to stack books in boxes on the floor. When they come back at the end of the day, they are empty."
On January 13, 1967, the county acquired another new bookmobile that could hold 4,000 volumes and cost $21,148.85. That year there were 55 stops divided between the two bookmobiles. The bookmobiles were called "A" and "B." Bookmobile A handled 27 community stops, and bookmobile B handled 28, all on a bi-weekly schedule.
On May 1, 1973, the county bought another new bookmobile to replace the 1953 model. This one was a tractor-trailer unit with a book capacity of 6,000 volumes. That year, the bookmobiles served 45 community stops on a bi-weekly basis.
In 1977, the bookmobile headquarters moved to the old Spring Branch Memorial Library building on 900 Corbindale in Hedwig Village.
In 1978, the bookmobile department had a staff of four: two assistants and two drivers. On November 20, 1979, a third bookmobile was added to the program. This one had the capacity for 5,000 volumes and was painted with the slogan "Books … and other good things," which became the motto for Harris County Public Library (pictured here). The other two bookmobiles were re-painted with the same slogan.
Interior of the bookmobile. Customized shelving kept the books well organized and secure as the vehicle drove across the county.
In 1980, the bookmobiles' monthly circulation averaged 16,000, and the year ended with an overall circulation of 192,000.
In 1981, there were 27 community stops and an overall collection size of 24,726 items. Only two of the bookmobiles were used daily, while the third was used weekly and as the backup to make sure service was uninterrupted to communities.
The bookmobiles often appeared at local community events and celebrations, advertising the library's collections and programs. This display is at the Harris County Precinct One Street Olympics in the late 1980s.
The Street Olympics is an annual event founded in 1986 by Commissioner El Franco Lee.
In 1991, Director Cathy Park put in a budget request for $150,000 to replace the 17-year-old bookmobiles. The bookmobiles were frequently in need of repair, and a recent assessment of the vehicle purchased in 1973 showed that it would be permanently out of service within a year. Without a replacement vehicle, it would be difficult to continue to provide service to all the existing stops. The request for a new bookmobile was denied.
By 1996, the county only had two aging bookmobiles left. Director Cathy Ensign (formerly Park) reported to the County Judge and Commissioners that the frequent breakdowns and repairs to the bookmobiles were costing the library a substantial amount of money and causing near-constant service interruptions. The bookmobile program would be unable to continue much longer without new vehicles.
By 1998, the situation with the vehicles was even worse. In February 1999, the 25-year-old tractor-trailer model was deemed no longer fit to drive. It had been off the road for three months due to safety concerns, and the other bookmobile needed to be taken in for a similar inspection. With one vehicle out of commission, the county would need to cancel 11 of the 22 stops. Down to only one 21-year-old bookmobile, Director Ensign began to discuss possibilities for the bookmobile program's future.
In March of 1999, both bookmobiles were taken off the road due to safety issues. Director Ensign sent a proposal to Commissioner's Court with two possible solutions to the problem. The first option was to continue to operate the 21-year-old bookmobile (repairing as needed) until it would no longer be usable at all. The second option was to end the bookmobile program and distribute all staff to permanent library locations. The bookmobile materials would be distributed out among all the library branches, and there would be final drives to all the stops to pick up materials borrowed from patrons.
Ensign's report considered many factors for both options, including the proximity of most bookmobile stops to library branches and the cost of ongoing vehicle maintenance.
The issue was debated among staff, Commissioner's Court, and the public, with many upset by the idea of ending the bookmobile service. While three years earlier a similar plan to end the program was rejected, in May of 1999 Commissioner's Court decided to end the bookmobile program that had existed since 1921.
However, that is not the end of the story.
In 2017, a new library vehicle program was created in partnership with the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation. The Curiosity Cruiser vehicles are state-of-the-art mobile libraries that bring books and educational programs incorporating science, math, technology, writing, and the arts to children and schools around Harris County.
A Curiosity Cruiser vehicle and mascot Northtale, seen here in 2018.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cruiser Crew gave away hundreds of books at food drives around the county.
Children inside the Curiosity Cruiser with Cruiser mascot Owlbotron.
The Reading Express began operation in October 2018. Designed in partnership with Making it Better, the mobile classroom focuses on early-literacy programming for children aged 2 months to 4 years. Staff help children and their caregivers to explore language through books, nursery rhymes, songs, art, and play. The vehicle travels to apartment complexes and other community venues throughout the county.
HCPL launched GRADcafé on the Go on February 16, 2019, in partnership with Project GRAD. The vehicle is a mobile experience bringing information, resources, and experts offering free guidance to anyone preparing for, applying to, and enrolling in a higher education institution of their choice and completing their college and career plans.
Lucy Fuller left a lasting legacy to Harris County by inspiring those who came after her to think beyond the library building and always look for ways to reach those at every corner of our great county. The vehicles have changed over time, but the mission has always stayed the same: providing free access to books and early literacy tools.