Booker the Book Bus nears the end of the road

Already faced with the ongoing discussion of how to replace its downtown facility, the Library Board soon must decide what to do with its aging bookmobile, known as Booker the Book Bus.

The familiar bookmobile will be on the road through the summer, but it's not clear how much longer it can last. Library Director Lynne Young told the board Tuesday that the immediate need is about $8,000 for a generator, but the bigger question is whether it's wise to put any money into Booker, who turned 20 last year.

Booker already was well-worn when the Northfield Library bought it from the regional library system, SELCO, for $2,000 in 1991. The library and the Northfield Public Schools wrote a grant for the purchase, and a number of local organizations donated new paint, carpet and fixtures. The routes stretched outside the city to meet the school boundaries.

Ever since, Booker has been a big part of the library's outreach services. This year the library began a contract with the county to provide services outside the school district. The regional library service, which had retired its bookmobile, donated some of its collection to Booker.

In an e-mail interview Thursday, Young explained where the board is headed.

"The board affirmed the importance of the bookmobile as an outreach activity," she said. "We looked at the cost figures for the bookmobile last year. The cost was $2.81 per circulation (per book circulated). The library provides this somewhat more efficiently, at $2.43 per circulation. However, Booker shines in providing quality program experiences. Including Books and Stars, the program attendancd cost $5.23 for each person. (That figure is arrived at by dividing all of the costs for Booker by, in the first case, the number of items checked out and in the second, by the number of people attending programs.)

"Booker brings literacy activities and opportunities both to daycares and to the community at large, whether at neighborhood stops or as part of the Books & Stars program.

"The board did not set up an action plan at this time, but the Friends of the Library will begin putting some applications out for grants. The board will need to work with the city council on this issue in the near future."

Young estimated that a good used bookmobile could cost about $35,000.

Northfield is not alone in dealing with bookmobile issues. Bookmobiles have been around nationally for a century, but budget cuts, rising gas prices, concerns over insurance liability and other issues have reduced their number and use.

The American Library Association reports there were 867 bookmobiles operating across the United States in 2003, down from 1,135 in 1991. Most serve rural areas. Since Hurricane Katrina, bookmobiles have been used to serve people in areas where libraries were destroyed.

For now, Booker remains on the road, though maybe in the slow lane.