First bookmobile in the country

Posted by | April 18, 2013

In honor of National Bookmobile Day, April 17.

“Psychologically, the wagon is the thing,” commented librarian Mary Lemist Titcomb of the project she is most remembered for. “One can no easier resist the pack of a peddler from the Orient as a shelf full of books when the doors of the wagon are opened at one’s gateway.”

Mary Titcomb. Courtesy Western Maryland Historical Library.

Mary Titcomb. Courtesy Western Maryland Historical Library.

Titcomb was referring to the bookmobile—the nation’s first— that she had custom outfitted in 1904 to deliver books to the residents of Washington County, MD. The horse-drawn Concord wagon could display 200 volumes and store another 2,360 behind its shelves.

Titcomb (1857-1932) arrived in Hagerstown, MD in 1901 after having worked as a library organizer in Vermont for 12 years. She plunged energetically and efficiently into organizing the Washington County Free Library, which had been chartered in 1898, the first incorporated county-wide library in the country.

Titcomb held firmly to the belief that giving out books was but a small part of a library’s purpose. “There is a great army of men and women,” she observed, “who use our public libraries to read because it gives them pleasure—because through books they are lifted out of all routine of every-day life, their imaginations are quickened and for the brief space that the book holds them in thrall the colors of life assume a brighter tint.”

This view of books’ power wasn’t as apparent to Hagerstown residents of her day as it may be to us; mandatory school attendance was still a decade away, so book learning was not in any way central to the culture yet.

The idea for a book wagon was an outgrowth of ‘deposit stations,’ which Titcomb set up in 1901 in remote area stores and Sunday Schools, each with 30-40 volumes. After 4 years she had 66 stations. She liked the thought that the wagon idea would further ‘cement friendships,’ and by 1903 had convinced the library Board of Trustees to approve & obtain a Carnegie gift of $2,500 in 5 annual installments.

Joshua Thomas, the library janitor, was the first wagon driver. A county native and Civil War vet, after the war he’d driven regularly through the area buying eggs, butter & produce for market, and so knew the roads intimately.

In April 1905 the first book wagon, driven by Thomas, made its maiden trip throughout the countryside of Washington County. During the new bookmobile’s first 6 months he made 31 trips, averaging 30 miles each trip, 3 times a week. Thomas routinely covered 500 square miles of backroad territory, and distributed 1,008 volumes during that time.

As to the books selected, the demand for best sellers was unknown among rural residents of that era, with the result that they chose a higher quality of literature.

Titcomb instructed Thomas that there should be “no hurrying from house to house, but each family must be allowed ample time for selections.”

Washington County Free Library bookwagon, ca. 1905

The wagon’s initial design presented an unforeseen problem: it was painted black and did not have glass doors, and because of that was taken for the ‘dead wagon’ and was often urged to pass on by superstitious residents. A paint job and new doors quickly resolved the issue, however.

Drawn by Dandy and Black Beauty, the bookmobile wagon served the county for over five years with Joshua Thomas dispensing the books at each stop. But in August 1910, a freight train ran into the wagon as it was crossing the Norfolk and Western Railroad at St. James. The horses and driver survived; the wagon did not.

Bookmobile service went down for a year; the first round of Carnegie financing was exhausted, and by the time another $2,500 materialized (offered up by library board treasurer William Kealhofer) the horse drawn vehicle was deemed outmoded. The service resumed, but this time with a motorized vehicle.

Titcomb summed up her bookmobile vision thus: “No better method has ever been devised for reaching the dweller in the country. The book goes to the man, not waiting for the man to come to the book.”

sources: Western Maryland Regional Library

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