According to the most currently available report from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Public Libraries in the United States: Fiscal Year 2012, six percent of public libraries had one or more bookmobile outlets, with a total of 683 bookmobiles delivering library services in the U.S.
Bookmobiles, in use in the United States since 1905, are just one form of mobile delivery of library services. The former IFLA Mobile Libraries Section, now part of the Public Libraries Section, investigated delivery services around the world. In a survey conducted in in 1999-2001 they offered the following options for delivery: Bicycle, Wagon, Donkey Cart, Camel, Motorbike, Boat, Helicopter, Train, and the more usual bookmobiles in the form of special trucks, vans or mini-buses.
The first bookmobile was a horse-drawn buggy at the Hagerstown (Md.) Public Library, now part of the Washington County Free Library, in 1905. Another form of outreach to areas, particularly rural areas, without library service were traveling libraries.
For the centennial of mobile library services, the ALA Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS) prepared a slide show (133 PowerPoint slides, which will open in a new window).
Bookmobiles posts on the blog, OLOS Columns: ALA's Office for Literacy and Outreach Services.
Cummings, Jennifer. "How Can We Fail? The Texas State Library's Traveling Libraries and Bookmobiles, 1916-1966." Libraries & the Cultural Record, vol. 44, no. 3, p.299-325.
Mates, Barbara T. "AccessAbility @ Cleveland Public Library." Public Libraries Vol. 42, No. 1 (January/February 2003): 28-31.
Entire issue available online as an Adobe Reader PDF file; see page 32 of the 68-page PDF file.
The third page of the article features a photo of the Cleveland Public Library's "mobile services unit," or bookmobile, which is nicknamed "Bessie." There's also a section on that page, titled, "The People's University on Wheels," which explains that "Bessie" has "a wheelchair lift and is outfitted with adaptive technology software and CCTV. Facilities routinely visited include children's residential rehabilitation, senior citizen, and rehabilitation facilities."
Minkel, Walter. "On the Road Again." School Library Journal Vol. 49, Issue 10 (October 2003): 34-36.
An old-fashioned library technology is reborn.
Poulter, Kathryn. "The Book Wagon (PDF)." Public Libraries, November/December 2007, p. 49-51.
"Service on Wheels." Library Journal March 15, 2006 (Vol. 131; Movers & Shakers Supplement, page 28).
Brief portrait of Jeannie Dilger-Hill, explaining that what she "loves most about being outreach services manager at King County Library System (KCLS) is that the eight vehicles in her charge visit 130 nursing homes, senior centers, low-income housing developments, child care centers, rehabilitation centers, and hospitals, providing fair and equal access to the information upon which a democratic society depends."
Tower, Mary. "Seniors and Mobile Library Services." Bookmobile and Outreach Services Vol. 3, No. 2 (2000): 37-42.
The article speaks extensively on pages 40-41 about both the advantages and the drawbacks to equipping a bookmobile with a wheelchair lift, advising that even though "a wheelchair lift is not required by the ADA, if you already have senior patrons using wheelchairs at nursing homes or if you go to other sites frequented by wheel chair users, or expect to do so in the future, then the need for a wheel chair lift may well outweigh the drawbacks. It is your local situation, your service program that must determine your choice, not the decision another library has made, even one in an adjacent jurisdiction."
ADA and Bookmobiles
For an answer to "Is physical accessibility required?", see the ADA Guide for Small Towns from the Department of Justice, which states: "If a library facility or building is not accessible, these services may be offered in a different accessible library facility, in another accessible facility nearby, or in an alternate manner."
Notice that the ADA Guide shows an example of an older, smaller bookmobile, which includes this description: "A drawing of an older bookmobile parked in a parking lot with a person using a scooter approaching the side door. The entry door has steps and no ramp. A call button, located on the side of the bookmobile, is pushed to call the staff person to the door to provide service." In this way, the bookmobile is an "alternate manner," as noted above, which brings library services to the disabled library users in the community. The ADA Guide goes on to say: "What is important is that the same services be available to individuals with disabilities as are offered to others such as doing research, using the card catalog or cataloging device, reading or reviewing items usually held in reserve or special collections, and returning loaned items."
There are newer, larger bookmobiles that are already compliant with the ADA requirements and include lifts for disabled patrons. For wheelchair accessibility, the usual ADA space requirements apply, including a minimum clear aisle space of 36 inches (a minimum of 42 inches is preferred).
In May, 2008, the Jersey City Free Public Library unveiled a custom-built disabled-accessible bookmobile.
For another use of decommissioned bookmobiles, see this news item from February 16, 2010, "Tom Corwin celebrates reading with bookmobile," describing how author Tom Corwin is highlighting reading.
What is it like on board? See this July 1, 2010 USA Today Pop Candy Blog post, Guest blogger: What's it like to command a bookmobile?