Mobile Services, The Seattle Public Library -- The Bookmobile

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 4/03/2003
  • Essay 4153
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Since 1947, Seattle readers who cannot get to the main library or to a branch have been served by the bookmobile and other mobile services. The bookmobile first brought books to readers in Seattle's growing neighborhoods. Routes were adjusted as the city expanded and as new branches were built. Bookmobiles gradually got away from serving neighborhoods and eventually served seniors and residents of retirement and nursing homes, homebound individuals, and childcare centers.

The library's first mobile service was the delivery of books to hospital patients, which began in 1921. A librarian would visit wards and receive from the floor nurse a list of rooms she was not to visit because of contagion or other medical reasons. Then she would distribute books to bedridden patients.

The first bookmobile is credited to Hagerstown, Maryland, in 1902. Washington County (Maryland) Free Library janitor Joshua Thomas drove a Concord wagon and team to service rural deposit stations. In 1905, the wagon was modified with a box to carry 250 books.

The 1920s saw automotive engineering develop to the point that trucks designed as mobile libraries became dependable and economical. In 1924, Everett became the first library in Washington to field a bookmobile, which was nicknamed Pegasus. Seattle librarians began to investigate the feasibility of "book wagon service" (SPL Archives) in 1927 and cited the successes in Everett and Portland. One issue to be resolved was whether the trucks were to be designed for exterior access, useable only in good weather, or inside access, limiting the numbers of borrowers served.

Library On The Go -- For A  Little While

On May 4, 1931, Seattle's first bookmobile, with 600 books, hit the road to West Seattle. Each day of the week, the van and its driver and librarian visited different parts of the city, making stops at prearranged locations. The last stop on Mondays was the Boeing Airplane Co. The bookmobile, designed by Arthur D. Jones of Seattle, featured four innovative bookshelves -- two on each side -- that rotated inside or outside. On nice days, borrowers browsed books from the street or sidewalk. In bad weather, they went inside the truck.

As part of its regular service to schools, the Bookmobile stopped at Sacred Heart Orphanage and at the Washington Children's Home. Children at these facilities were not allowed to leave the grounds and thus were unable to use regular library branches.  For children with more freedom of movement, however, separation of church and state was duly observed: A 1931 schedule for the Bookmobile's school division notes that schools on the list marked with "*" are parochial schools, and specifying, "Children from these schools go to school grounds of nearest public school to be included in library service provided by Bookmobile" ("Schedule...").A typescript report on the mobile service's first year of operation explained one important function it served in a growing city with as-yet few branch libraries:

"We find that many women who are confined to their homes with small children take advantage of the service for in nearly every case a trip to the library would mean a long (street) car ride with transfer.  The person who visits the Bookmobile often borrows books for all members of the family.  The husband and older boys send their requests" ("Bookmobile Service").

The Great Depression forced the library to park the Bookmobile and to cancel hospital services in August 1932.

In 1943, the Junior League, a women's service organization, tried to run a mobile library service. But too many books were lost and the library had to end the experiment. In February 1946, librarians brought books to patients at Childrens Orthopedic Hospital on Queen Anne Hill.

Molly Mobile

Library books did not get wheels again until October 6, 1947. State funding provided a new van built by Pacific Body Builders in Portland. The growth of Seattle during World War II resulted in opening a number of small library stations (usually in space donated by the community), but many neighborhoods were still left unserved. Bookmobile stops included public and private schools where enrollments ballooned during the postwar Baby Boom. At each stop, the two-member staff spent between one and three hours checking books in and out, answering questions, and allowing browsing before they were on their way again. The bookmobile visit was often a community occasion where neighbors socialized. The bookmobile met with such popularity that the driver -- who pitched in as a clerk -- and the librarian often had to skip their coffee and lunch breaks to meet their timetables.

"Molly" the Bookmobile covered 17 different stops that first year and 71 percent of the circulation was juvenile. To meet demand, stops were reduced to between 10 and 30 minutes.

Runs were cancelled if the driver was ill (librarians could be replaced, but not drivers) and readers had to wait until the next visit, sometimes two weeks later, to get new books. An experiment using a police officer as a substitute driver proved unsatisfactory when the officer wanted to go home at 3:00 p.m. In 1952, Molly scheduled a stop at the King County Hospital in Georgetown where a patient took responsibility for circulating books. That same year, the staff started visiting selected patients at nursing homes and cut their break time to meet the official timetable.


On January 1, 1954, Mobile II -- Benny -- was added. Benny served the neighborhood stops and Molly visited schools. Both vans traveled between 8,000 and 9,000 miles a year. Benny featured improvements over Molly, such an engine large enough to move a truckload of books up Seattle's hills. Mobile Services, as the department was officially known, was based at 1100 E Union Street until 1957 when it moved to the basement of the Yesler Branch at 23rd Avenue E and Yesler Way. In 1968, Mobile Services went to 8th Avenue and Dearborn for a year, then to the basement at the Green Lake Branch.

The 1950s and 1960s saw new branches open in the growing and newly annexed neighborhoods of Seattle. The bookmobiles adjusted their routes accordingly. Stops were selected using a variety of informal criteria including patron interest, the distance to the closest branch library, and accessibility of branches for seniors and patrons with special needs. One unit had a lift so that book carts could be taken to bedridden readers. Circulation for each van was the equivalent to a "fair sized branch" (Annual Reports). In 1958, Molly -- or Mobile I -- was placed in reserve in favor of a new and larger Mobile I. Molly came in handy when Benny had a number of breakdowns, but after a year, Molly was completely retired.

In the late 1950s, Mobile Services began delivering books twice a week to female prisoners in the Seattle City Jail.


In the 1960s, school circulation dropped as the Baby Boom waned and as school libraries improved. A 32-foot van, dubbed Ramona after a character in Beverly Cleary's stories for children, entered service in 1969. Driver Doyle Barner flew to Wooster, Ohio, on his vacation and drove the new unit back to Seattle.

In 1972, The Seattle Public Library launched the  Handicapped/Elderly Library Program  (H.E.L.P.)  using city and federal (HEW) funds.  H.E.L.P extended library services  to 100 borrowers who were unable to leave their homes, people whose disabilities prevented them visiting a library branch, and some elderly patrons. After H.E.L.P was enacted, Mobile Services was able to purchase their first truck with a lift.  Bookmobiles stopped at 64 retirement homes, 40 nursing homes, and 10 other institutions. This marked a shift away from servicing neighborhoods that did not have branches or stations of their own. By 1975, service to elementary schools was cut entirely in favor of neighborhood stops and visits to institutions. From 1973 to 1997, Mobile Services was housed in the basement of the Henry Branch library on Capitol Hill.  In 1997, Mobile Services was relocated to 2025 9th Avenue in a building shared with the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library.

In 1984, the library fielded the Pot of Gold, a small Nissan van with opening sides. The unit became a fixture at street fairs, neighborhood celebrations, and Seafair parades where it publicized the library and invited readers to sign up for library cards.

In 1989 Ramona, by then beloved throughout the city, was retired after 20 years of service. Book lovers were invited to a farewell party for the vehicle with City Librarian Liz Stroup. The University Herald/North Seattle Central Outlook titled their story about the party "Ramona, 11-ton City Employee, Retires" (May 17, 1989).The Seattle Times ran the story as an obituary headlined "Aging Ramona Dies A Textbook Death":

"Ramona, the Seattle Public Library's bookmobile, received her 20-year city service pin posthumously yesterday morning as she lay in state outside the Downtown Library during a somber, open hood ceremony.  The venerable bookmobile ... died of a 'rod thrown through her engine' on her 23,764th mission" (May 11, 1989). 

The Animal and Eugene

By 1990, there were two bookmobiles and three vans serving 75,000 borrowers. The brightly painted "Animal Truck" stopped at preschools and daycare centers. Eugene (named for Eugene, Oregon, which sold the bus to Seattle) had replaced Ramona in 1989.  By 2001, 275 patrons unable to leave their homes regularly received library services.

In 1997, laptop computers with modems connected the bookmobiles to the Central Library circulation and catalog systems.  In April 2003, a new unit built specifically to run on compressed natural gas arrived. Nick-named Hal, the unit was the first of its kind. 

Moving With The Times

Budget cuts in 2004 threatened to eliminate Mobile Services altogether, but a 2005 study recommended that services be altered rather than ended.  Hal was replaced with a smaller van.

As of 2009, two large step vans with lifts, called simply Mobile 2 and Mobile 4, are outfitted with laptop computers and three carts of books to serve retirement homes.   Librarians take the carts, stocked with a rotating selection of books, into the building lobby at each scheduled stop, and residents make selections from the carts.  Librarians assist residents in accessing their library accounts via the laptop computers so that they can place reserves, and those books are delivered at Mobile Service's next scheduled visit to the facility.  Librarians at assisted-living facilities also deliver some books bed-to-bed.

Patrons who find themselves unable to leave their homes for six months or more can request home service.  Home service librarians use a passenger van to deliver and pick up library books at each patron's home, providing a very personal service for these Seattle residents who could not otherwise reap the benefits of the library services their tax dollars support.

As of 2009, the Animal Truck still serves busy childcare centers on a monthly schedule.  Bookmobile librarians facilitate kindergarten readiness programs for parents of the kids visited by Animal Truck, and especially encourage children and parents to explore their own branch libraries.

Branch Librarians

  • Emily H. Keith, 1947-1958
  • Verda R. Hansberry, 1958-1965
  • Florence Wetmore, 1966-1971
  • Marjorie Burns, 1971-1978
  • Eleanor Klepis, 1979-1981
  • Toni Price (acting), 1981
  • Gloria Leonard, 1981-1983
  • Donna Edwards (acting), 1983
  • Gloria Leonard, 1984-1989
  • Larry Williamson (acting branch manager), 1990
  • Larry Williamson, 1990-2003
  • Marilyn Ring-Nelson, 1990-2003
  • Toni Price, 2003-present


Ranny Green, "On the Road With Our Libraries," The Seattle Times Pictorial, August 24, 1980, pp. 10-14; "Motorized Branch Is Library Plan, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 3, 1931, p. C-7; Alice Liu, "The Mobile Services Program of the Seattle Public Library: A Report to the City Council," mimeographed report, August 1983, Seattle Public Library, Northwest Collection; "Bookmobile Put Up for Economy," undated newsclipping in folder "Bookmobile Papers," Seattle Public Library Archives; "Mobile Services -- Bookmobiles," folder, Ibid.; "Annual Reports -- Mobile Services," folder, Ibid.; "A Maryland Pilgrimage," National Geographic Magazine, undated article in "Mobile Services -- Misc. Papers," folder, Ibid.; "Mobile Services," Flash, Seattle Public Library newsletter, Ibid.; Seattle Public Library Annual Reports, 1947 to 2002, Seattle Public Library; "Aging Ramona Dies a Textbook Death," The Seattle Times, May 11, 1989, p. F-3; Diane Brooks, "New Chapter for State's First Bookmobile," Ibid., June 23, 1994, p. A-1; Gil Bailey, "The Books Keep On Rolling After 50 Years," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 31. 1997, p. C-6; "Mobile Services," Seattle Public Library Website (; Minutes of Proceedings, Library Board of Seattle, bound volumes, Seattle Public Library archives, Vol. 4, pp. 379, 381, 385; Vol. 5, pp. 40-41, 124-125, 315, 335; Barbara Mettler, "History of the Seattle Public Library Bookmobile," independent study paper, Fall 1982, typescript in folder, "Newsclippings," Seattle Public Library Mobile Services Archives, Verda Hansberry, Seattle Public Library: A Chronology, (Seattle: Seattle Public Library, 1983); David Wilma interview with Marilyn Ring-Nelson, Director of Mobile Services, Seattle Public Library, Seattle, Washington, April 6, 2003; Seattle Public Library Directory of Staff, 1967-1970 (bound together), Seattle Room Collection, The Seattle Public Library; Seattle Public Library uncataloged archival materials, Box 4, "Personnel Staff Day," folders "Staff Directory 1950," and "Staff Directory 1956," and "Staff Directory 1960-1969," and unmarked folder containing staff directories 1970-1977, Seattle, Washington; Library Board of Seattle, Minutes of Proceedings, Vols. 5 (1934-1944), 6 (1945-1951), 7(1952-1957), 8 (1958-1961), 9 (1962-1966), 10 (1967-1970), 11 (1971-1973), 12 (1974-1976), 13 ( 1977-1978), Seattle Room, Central Branch, Seattle Public Library, Seattle; Toni Price interview with Paula Becker, February 19, 2009, Seattle, Washington, notes in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle, Washington; "Mobile Services Annual Reports," and "Bookmobile Service" typescript, and "Schedule for Bookmobile School Division" in "Bookmobile, 1931-1972," Seattle Public Library Branch Records, Box 6 (Library for the Blind, Mobile Services, Book Mobile), Seattle Room, Central Branch, The Seattle Public Library, Seattle; Larry Little, "Books Help Women Prisoners Escape," newspaper clipping, n.d. but likely late 1950s, and "Aging Ramona Dies A Textbook Death," The Seatttle Times clipping, n.d., Uncataloged Mobile Services archival materials, Mobile Services Branch, The Seattle Public Library, Seattle; Jack Jarvis, "Bookmobile: A Trip To Lore," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 6, 1965, p. 14; Johnny Dodd, "Ramona, an 11-ton City Employee, Retires," University Herald/North Seattle Central Outlook, May 17, 1989; Toni Price email to Paula Becker, March 3, 2009, in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle, Washington.
Note: This essay was greatly expanded on May 9, 2009.

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