Tuesday, September 8, 2015

From Mountains to Floods to Rural Mississippi:

 Librarians Providing Nourishment for Book Deserts

Throughout our history, U.S. librarians have been meeting the information needs of communities everywhere, even in places where there is no physical building.  Librarians have long had to create innovative methods in which to serve people living in “book deserts,” which may be defined as those areas without accessible libraries and reading materials (Johnston, 2015). We come on packhorses, bicycles, and bookmobiles to nourish book and knowledge hunger.  In rural Kentucky, the Works Progress Administration developed the Pack Horse Librarians Project, which allowed librarians to travel to areas with no automobile accessible roads and/or libraries.  The project operated from 1935-1943, with librarians often traveling 50-80 miles a week through rough, mountainous terrain in all weather conditions to deliver over  3,500 books per month to people who would otherwise have had no access. (See images below).*

*All images are the property of the University of Kentucky Library Archives.

Since the end of World War II, unfortunately, book deserts have continued to thrive in many areas of the country.  However, librarians are still utilizing creative methods in which to serve patrons living there.  For example, many cities are developing “books on bikes” programs to serve areas that lack “roads and infrastructure for a book mobile” (Johnston, 2015).  These “pedal-powered libraries” with attached trailers allow librarians to take books off of the shelves and bring them into the community.  Seattle Public Libraries began a Books on Bikes program in 2013 and currently has three book trailers that are taken to community events, with one trailer having a focus on children’s materials.  Each trailer is equipped with WiFi so that patrons can check out books or register for library cards. Seattle’s Books on Bike programs visits 20-30 events per year and sees approximately 1500 people.

A Books on Bikes program developed by Alicia Tapia in San Francisco carries about 100 books and serves people of all ages.  She gives away donated books to people in the Panhandle area of the city on Tuesdays and also serves the Mission Area and Golden Gate Park was well.  For more information on these and other programs, go to http://magazine.good.is/articles/bike-libraries.

Five counties in North Mississippi (Tunica, Tate, DeSoto, Panola, and Lafayette) are served by the First Regional Library, which is made up of 14 libraries.   After Hurricane Katrina, a library system in Maryland donated a bookmobile to the Hancock County Library System on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  After the libraries had reopened after the storm, First Regional Library acquired it and then director, Catherine Nathan, decided to use it to address the childhood literacy problem in Mississippi.  To serve those in the rural daycare centers, First Regional also offers the Words on Wheels Book Wagon, driven by Early Childhood Services Coordinator, Victoria Penny.  The “Book Wagon” is a service provided to local daycares and childcare centers and the goal is to “provide a smaller, on-location library experience for preschoolers—to take what they would experience at a library and bring it to them.”  Victoria refers to it as a “pop-up library.”

At each daycare, the children are brought into the bus and Victoria has a storytime with them where she reads stories and sings songs.  The focus, she said, is on language and language development.  She asks the children questions about the stories and encourages them to talk and ask questions.  Children greet her with joyful shouts of “It’s the book bus” or “It’s the library bus.”  The storytime not only encourages language development, but also a love of books and the library.

                The Book Wagon is set up with books and other materials and also has a computer so that items may be checked out.  Available books include not only children’s titles, but also “teacher books,” which include ideas for curriculum and curriculum development. Approximately 400 titles are checked out each month.  The Book Wagon runs all year and Victoria has 44 daycares that she visits on a regular basis and she tries to visit each at least once a month.  In addition, the Book Wagon also makes stops at local festivals and community events.  “Any place where the focus is on literacy and reading, that’s where we’ll be!” says Victoria. 

                If you know of a daycare in Tunica, Tate, DeSoto, Panola, or Lafayette counties who is currently not being served by the Book Wagon, please contact Victoria Penny at vpenny@firstregional.org or 662-429-4439.  You can also find more information on First Regional Library’s website at http://www.firstregional.org/ecrcproviderspage.html.

Librarians have long been on the forefront of providing information to their communities.  The lack of a physical building does not deter us!   I am proud to say that Mississippi libraries are and have always been a part of this innovation, creativity, and dedication. 


Johnston, S. (2015). Librarians on bikes are delivering books and WiFi to kids in book deserts. Good. Retrieved from http://magazine.good.is/articles/bike-libraries.

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