In praise of mobile libraries

4 minute read

I love mobile libraries. Why though? I had a think.

Nostalgia

I don’t currently use a mobile library but I used to. Growing up, the nearest static library was 8 miles away and not easy to get to (long walk and then a very long bus journey). During school holidays, 6 weeks was a long time to be without a library. But what did happen was the mobile library came to the village. Even that was a couple of miles walk, but it meant I could get to a library and go to the post office and get some pear drops at the same time.

Of course it’s not really only nostalgia. Though not a current user it’s important to remember what you needed in the past, and mobile libraries serve areas that don’t have certain permanent services. And it’s a real library - you can look round, and actually browse books. There may be alternative services like drop off points, book containers, home delivery, but they’re not actual libraries.

A labrador sittng nicely in a mobile library
Dogs and mobile libraries go well together.

Digitally appalling

I tend to work in digital transformation roles. Ideally that means looking at processes that could be improved by integrating technology, where appropriate. Not made worse, and not necessarily replacing physical - but at least providing digital alternatives.

Mobile libraries are long overdue this. Many effectively have no online presence. Sometimes a PDF timetable, sometimes a phone number or email address to contact, but never comprehensive online information about them.

It’s also a challenge. Mobile libraries are more difficult to describe than static libraries. You have to list the places they stop, and when. Static libraries with weekly opening hours are a doddle compared to mobile library timetables (though services do their best to make static opening hours complex).

You also need to deal with unplanned changes such as the van failing it’s MOT, or the wheels falling off. For most services this tends to involve phoning as many regulars as possible to let them know it’s not turning up. Sometimes when they’re waiting for it already.

Decent online information, as well as efficient notification processes, are potential areas for mobile library digital transformation.

I was once querying this with a service and the response was essentially ‘most of our users are elderly and not online anyway so it’s fine’. But there are problems in being content with that.

  1. It implies no new users. Caring about existing users is important, but information needs to also inform new users.
  2. It’s not sustainable. If you say your user base is elderly, and also that you aren’t going to attract new users, that’s not a sustainable situation.
  3. Online usage is changing. Even if it were true (and it’s not) that a current set of elderly mobile library users aren’t online, it’s not going to be the case forever.
  4. It’s self-fulfilling. Maybe this is from using mobile libraries as a child, but I’m not sure that the view of mobile libraries being for the elderly isn’t just self-fulfilling. If the mobile library is only promoted through word of mouth in certain communities it won’t have a chance to be more widely used.

Exciting

Static libraries are in one place, all the time. It’s boring. Where’s the library going to be today? The same place as it was yesterday. Will it be open? No, of course not, it’s a Tuesday. It will open on Wednesday at 1:30pm (2pm if it’s the 5th Wednesday of the month). At the same place? Yes, it’s a static library, it’s always there.

With mobile libraries, they’re only ‘shut’ when they’re on the road, as it would be dangerous otherwise. But when at a stop they’re always open, and they go to hundreds of different stops. When not on the road, or at a stop, they effectively don’t exist. That’s better than being closed.

Looking at mobile libraries involves maps. I love maps. It involves routes. I love routes. They involve interesting geographic places. Not addresses. Addresses are also a bit boring - they all have postcodes and official fields like ‘address line 1’. Mobile libraries at located at places like ‘Opposite the big tree, down the round from the farm’. Real locations. Geocoding them becomes more of an interesting challenge. Should they use Plus Codes? That would be interesting.

Location location location

The previous post on this blog was libraries on the high street, about the strategic location of libraries.

Location is important. I don’t know where libraries ‘should’ be in a changing world. They’re already in a variety of locations. I proposed once that it might be useful to have more libraries in out of town shopping areas like retail parks. Not because libraries are similar to those things, but because that’s where people go. But someone said no, they should definitely stay on the high street (which they’re not necessarily on to start with).

Anyway, the point is that mobile libraries can go anywhere. They could be used to try out loads of different locations. But they don’t really - they go to a set batch of stops.

I used to work on a dull industrial estate. At lunchtime a sandwich van would turn up outside the office, which was exciting. But they weren’t great sandwiches, the only reason we used the sandwich van was because the only alternative was a greasy spoon, and we’d already been there for breakfast. What would have been amazing would be a mobile library turning up a lunchtime. Those office workers stuck on that industrial estate would have fought desperately to get a chance to go on a mobile library.

I know there are plenty of services that think mobile libraries are expensive, inefficient, and smelly liabilities. That hardly have any users, and breakdown all the time. And when they need replacing (which they do) they haven’t got the money to do it because a replacement library isn’t part of their budget.

But they’re great and they should be invested in.