Can Bookmobiles Help Close the Digital Divide?

By Daniel A. Freeman |

Long ago, in the twitterless, 1.0 dark age of 2003, I got one of the coolest jobs in the world—I was a bookmobile driver at the Champaign Public Library.  Aside from the obvious perk of getting to drive a huge bus around town, this job really gave me a perspective on how libraries can be a bridge to bring different communities together. To me, the most fulfilling part of the job was knowing that in many cases, we truly were bringing library services to people who would not have had access to them otherwise.

The bookmobile served everyone—we stopped at retirement communities and pre-schools, the most-upscale neighborhoods and the most economically challenged.

I was thinking about my old job because I stumbled upon this post at No Shelf Required discussing Overdrive’s Digital Bookmobile. According to their website:


The Digital Bookmobile is a community outreach vehicle for public libraries to promote downloadable eBooks, audiobooks, music, and video. Developed inside a 74-foot, 18-wheel tractor-trailer, the nationally touring vehicle is a high-tech update of the traditional bookmobile that has served communities for decades.

The Digital Bookmobile creates an engaging download experience around the host library's digital media collection and 'Virtual Branch' download website. The vehicle is equipped with broadband Internet-connected PCs, high-definition monitors, premium sound systems, and a variety of portable media players. Interactive computer stations give visitors an opportunity to search the digital media collection, use supported mobile devices, and sample eBooks, audiobooks, music, and video from the library.


While the Digital Bookmobile may have been conceived as a promotional tool, and not one to promote bookmobiles exclusively, I think it raises a very important real-world question: How are bookmobiles helping libraries bridge the digital divide?

Bookmobiles have come a long way since the Washington County, Maryland’s book wagon started offering service in 1905. Today many bookmobiles are using satellite links and other wireless technology to connect seamlessly their ILS. Some navigate rural areas using GPS navigation systems. Patrons can often use a bookmobile as a full service branch where they can get a new card, pick up items on interlibrary loan and even utilize reference services.

This new technology has brought with it the advent of the cybermobile, which, depending on your perspective, is either a spin-off of the bookmobile or will eventually replace it altogether. For the record, I believe the former to be the case. Cybermobiles, while often providing library services and housing physical collections, focus primarily on providing high-speed Internet access and other technological services to populations that might otherwise have limited access. 

While technology may have changed, the primary purpose of the bookmobile has not—to expand the library’s reach in the community and provide services where it might otherwise be difficult to do so. When the bookmobile was conceived, this meant providing books. It then expanded to magazines, LPs, CD’s, DVD’s, games and nearly every multimedia item that could be found in a central branch. Now bookmobiles are starting to provide patrons with technology itself. This is not just an American or Western phenomenon--this formula is being replicated around the world.

I remember having a conversation with a patron when I worked on the bookmobile who expressed concern that the Internet might make bookmobiles obsolete. She felt that with so much information now accessible in one’s own home, there would be less of a need for the library to increase its reach. Today it’s clear that bookmobiles are growing and changing with new developments in technology and not despite them.