The world on wheels: Bookmobile the center of rural life

By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries

Bookmobile-logo-webPULLMAN, Wash. – While one little girl in Boise, Idaho, mistook the pink van parked down her street for an ice cream truck in the 1970s, teenager Barb Stone of Benton City, Wash., was already an old pro of the bookmobile circuit. A July 1960 photo shows 4-year-old Stone holding a small stack of books, standing next to the librarian and driver of the Mid-Columbia Regional Library’s Bookmobile.

All grown up now and working as an information technology specialist at the Washington State University Libraries, Stone still cherishes memories of the bookmobile’s comings and goings at her family’s home in the rural southern Washington town. Bookmobile staff dropped off travel narratives and art prints for her mother, Lenore, as well as science fiction and the first teen novel for Stone.

Barb Stone, age 4, with the librarian and driver of the Mid-Columbia Regional Library Bookmobile in 1960. (Photo courtesy of Barb Stone)

“I learned about girls with curlers in their hair who had parties,” said Stone, a sixth-grader at the time. “I read that book three times because I was learning how to be an older girl. Later, I had a big interest in science. The bookmobile brought books on beginning astronomy, biology, animals…

“It was a little community that came to you,” she said. “The universe changes once you find it.”

National Bookmobile Day is April 15, during National Library Week. NBD celebrates America’s bookmobiles and the dedicated staff who provide library services to their communities, according to the American Library Association. For more than 100 years, bookmobiles have delivered information, technology and resources for lifelong learning to Americans of all walks of life. For more about the day, visit

‘Coffee klatch every two weeks’

In Benton City of the 1960s, men worked at the Hanford Site and women stayed home with their families, Stone said. Lenore didn’t drive, and the countryside could get a little lonely. So the arrival of the Mid-Columbia Regional Library Bookmobile was richly anticipated by Stone’s family and neighbors.

“It was a hugely exciting part of our life on the farm,” she said. “It became like a coffee klatch every two weeks.”

Patrons browse books in the Mid-Columbia Regional Library Bookmobile, possibly during the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Mid-Columbia Libraries)

Bookmobile librarians and drivers changed over time, but Lenore made friends with all of them during their visits. They in turn brightened the Stone home through their lending library of art prints. Stone’s mother periodically refreshed the living room décor with rotating prints.

“The librarians chose art based on the living room’s color scheme,” Stone said. “They brought big pieces of the world to her. They were always thinking of what we wanted and what was exciting to her.”

The bookmobile staff even got Stone’s father, Wayne, hooked – though he wasn’t a reader. On their way to South Dakota for a visit one year, the Stone family stopped by the site of the Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana. When they returned home, the bookmobile librarian brought Wayne a book on the battle because he was interested.

“He devoured that book,” Stone recalled. “Occasionally, the librarians hit on just the right thing for him to read.”

Bookmobile fans for life

Because of those childhood experiences, Stone and her nearby cousin, Carol Eakin, chose library-related careers as adults. Stone has worked with WSU Libraries since 1979 – first in circulation, then in serial records, technical services and finally library systems.

A future library user in today’s bookmobile. (Photo courtesy of Mid-Columbia Libraries)

Eakin became branch manager of the Benton City Library and a bookmobile driver herself for nine years. Her business card read, “Carol Eakin, the bookmobile lady.”

“The best thing was the people who came, the kids at the schools that we went to,” Eakin said. “We got to drive the bookmobile in parades. When I was getting ready to retire, one of kids wrote on the goodbye card for me to have a fun retardment. I still have that card.”

Today, Mid-Columbia Regional Library has changed its name to Mid-Columbia Libraries and established branches in the smaller communities of Benton and Franklin counties. The bookmobile is still an integral part of outreach, serving 1,100 customers a month through visits to festivals, school events and expos.

“We serve them in a different way,” said MCL bookmobile staff member Alberto Gonzalez. “We have fostered relationships with customers and partnered with institutions.

“For example,” he said, “we have been building a partnership with the rural schools at Finley. We plan to transition this school stop into a general community stop.”

But one thing that hasn’t changed is the moment when a child discovers the world on wheels for the first time.

“The most memorable experience is the difference we make in a child’s life,” said MCL bookmobile staff member Beatriz Sandoval. “We expose them to the libraries at a young age. We help create lifelong library users.”

“We stop being the people who just check out books and become the people who help them solve problems and find resources,” added MCL bookmobile staff member Carlos Orozco.

The ice cream truck

But what of the little girl in Boise? On a hot summer evening, she spotted a pink van idling at the end of her street. The engine was loud; it could be heard easily two blocks away. Her mind instantly ran to ice cream. Bubble-gum-flavored ice cream.

Money in hand, she bolted down the block to the van and opened the door, out of breath but already anticipating the coldness of melting ice cream in her mouth. Staring back at her was an older woman with glasses, and behind her were books. Rows of books. No ice cream.

The older woman saw the disappointment and understood what the girl had been thinking. She invited her into the van to talk, asking questions. What did the girl like to do?

12-year-old Inger Nilsson as Pippi Longstocking at the RAI in Amsterdam, 1972. (Photo credit information here)

Her answers: Be outside. Get out of the house before Mom could catch her to brush her hair. Ride bikes. Be as strong as the boys in the neighborhood. Watch the stars at night.

The librarian pulled out a book about Pippi Longstocking, a wild child just like the girl. She came back week after week to talk to the librarian and check out more books about anything that pulled at her. Mysteries. Unexplained things that gave her goose bumps. Gothic romance. Greek mythology. Constellations. A young woman with schizophrenia.

The girl left Boise and the bookmobile, went to the university in Moscow, Idaho, to learn how to write for newspapers. She writes stories for another university’s libraries instead.

Stories like the one you’re reading right now.


Barb Stone, WSU Libraries information technology specialist, 509-335-1299,
Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries public relations/communication coordinator, 509-335-6744,