A new chapter: Kent revitalizing bookmobile program

Sussex County’s 30-foot bus-style bookmobile is one of the state’s two mobile libraries. Submitted photo

DOVER — During National Library Week the American Library Association always gives “bookmobiles” a nod with their own special day on Wednesdays.

This upcoming Wednesday is no different.

According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the number of bookmobile programs has been on the decline since 1995, when there were nearly 1,000 nationwide. That number has dropped to 650. Delaware has two, plus a smattering of smaller van-style mobile libraries operated by school districts.

The two bookmobiles in Delaware are run by Sussex and Kent counties. Recently, Kent’s service has declined both because its vehicle, nicknamed Lucy, has had a rash of mechanical issues and its longtime operator, Frances Gunning, retired.

County officials noted they have plans to revitalize the program, though.

“We actually closed the bidding process on a new bookmobile and the outfitting last week,” said Kent County community services director Jeremy Sheppard. “The budget Levy Court approved for us was $150,000 and I think we’ll be able to come in under that. We’re also in the process of selecting a new library tech that will be responsible for driving the bookmobile.”

After almost 13 years of service Lucy had begun showing her age. The vehicle was originally purchased in 2004 with the help of a monetary gift left by two sibling patrons from Hartly, Lucy and Walter Urban, after they died. The bookmobile was later nicknamed Lucy in honor of the donation.

Mr. Sheppard said there have been several recent mechanical issues with the 2004 diesel engine Ford E-450 including a broken generator. Currently the vehicle is parked at the county’s library — temporarily suspended.

As a testament to its popularity, its fans have started to speak out, said Kent County library director Hilary Welliver.

“The fact that’s we’ve been running below our normal capacity for the past few months hasn’t gone unnoticed,” she said. “Our customers have let it be known that they’re looking forward to getting a new vehicle and regular service again.”

Lucy’s routes include the Veterans Home, senior housing communities, daycare centers and charter schools. During her tenure, Ms. Gunning told this paper that she made about three 45-minute stops per day, averaging about 10 patrons per stop (more at schools).

Ms. Welliver notes that even though more content is being delivered “digitally” and over the Internet these days, the bookmobile and library seem to stay relevant because of the personal touch.

“We haven’t come to the point yet where we’re completely virtual yet and I don’t think we will any time soon,” she said. “People seem to really treasure that personal, one-on-one attention that comes with a bookmobile stopping by.

“It’s hard for lots of people to get to a library for one reason or another. We go to the Veterans Home on a weekly basis, and even when the Caesar Rodney school district was going through renovations at their library, we went out there a few times per week to make sure students still had access to books.”

Important to the community on its own, the vehicle has also been used as an outreach tool to draw attention to the Kent County Public Library and market their services. Ms. Welliver said the vehicle plays a role in much of the library’s programming, including its successful Arts in the Park series held in Brecknock Park every Wednesday in June through August.

“We’ve been doing it for the past five years and it brings 150 to 200 people to the park every time which is pretty significant,” said Ms. Welliver.

Mr. Sheppard said it’s likely the county will limp Lucy along over the summer once a new librarian is hired, but the new bookmobile will probably hit the road in early 2019.

Sussex County’s bookmobile is still going strong though — albeit with a smaller route.

Bookmobile manager Kathy McFadden said the county’s 33-foot bus-style mobile library is popular with locals young and old.

“The bookmobile is on the road two days a week, Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” she said. “It has 15 stops on a rotating three week schedule. On Thursday and Friday we are on the road with our smaller van and have 22 stops, also on a three week rotating schedule.”

In addition to public stops, the bookmobile makes visits to childcare institutions, schools, special needs communities and retirement homes where students and residents may not otherwise have access to library services.

Sussex County head librarian Kathy Graybeal notes that bookmobiles help libraries extend their reach. Even though the state is host to 33 libraries (one about ever 7 miles in Sussex County), there are still “undeserved” populations that benefit from the library’s mobile offerings.

And like Ms. Welliver, Ms. Graybeal believes that improvements in technology aren’t edging out the bookmobile’s place in the community.

“For many of these undeserved groups, they can’t or don’t often get the chance to make it to a library,” she said. “When the bookmobile shows up, it’s also like a social activity and just something enjoyable to look forward to. I think there’s always going to be a place for bookmobiles because of that.”

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