116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The younger of your two writers spotted a few #throwbackthursday posts on Instagram from the Cedar Rapids Public Library highlighting bookmobiles.
The older of your two writers immediately fell down a well of nostalgia, having been a regular Bookmobile patron in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The bookmobile stop in the parking lot of the Eagle grocery store (now True Value Hardware) on Mount Vernon Road SE was a sacred spot for a young reader falling in love with books.
The Cedar Rapids Public Library first sent a Bookmobile out into the community in 1952. It had six stops on its route. In 1954, a second vehicle was added. Ten years later, in 1964, a third Bookmobile was added to the fleet. At that time, mobile service was expanded to include Saturdays, with 19 neighborhoods served by the three vehicles.
A Gazette article on Sunday, Oct. 7, 1962, shared some impressive stats about the two bookmobiles in operation at the time. It reported:
Just as the main library and Kenwood branch have their own collections, the bookmobiles operate with a joint collection, all ordered especially for bookmobile use and all duplicates of material available at the main library.
It totals 27,598 books, including 10,500 adult titles and 17,000 juvenile. New books and replacements are added at the rate of 6,000 a year. The larger bookmobile carries 3,500 books, the smaller, about 3,000 … .
The place of bookmobile service in the total library program is unquestioned; it accounts for roughly 35 percent of the system’s total annual circulation.
The two units circulated 311,622 books in 1961, more than 14 percent over 1960. Circulation for the first nine months of this year is 276,285, or 13.5 percent over a year ago.
Bookmobile No. 3 added significant capacity, as noted in The Gazette on Sunday, Oct. 25, 1964:
Bookmobile No. 3 is a big one, 7 feet wide and 28 feet long inside. It has a capacity of 4,000 books or more…There is an intercom system between the front and rear desks of the Bookmobile — an essential feature during peak hours when as many as 50 or 60 people jam the 21-foot service aisle.
The list of 1965 bookmobile stops included:
- Monday: Williams Boulevard at Eighth Avenue SW; and J Street at Wilson Avenue SW
- Tuesday: Center Point Road at 42nd Street NE; and Dairydale Baptist Church parking lot, 3408 Mount Vernon Rd. SE
- Wednesday: Municipal parking Lot, 16th Avenue at C Street SW; Farm Market, 1556 First Ave. NE; and Cedar Hills, Plainview Drive NW
- Thursday: Ninth Street at 18th Avenue SW; and St. James Methodist Church parking lot, 1430 Ellis Blvd. NW
- Friday: Farm Market, Oakland Road at 32nd Street NE; and East Sun Mart, 2405 Mount Vernon Rd. SE
- Saturday: F Avenue at 19th Street NW; and Lincolnway Village at Mayden Avenue and Colorado Drive SW
Despite the notion in 1962 that “the place of bookmobile service in the total library program is unquestioned,” a decade later the first two vehicles had been retired.
In 1983, the library decided to retire the only remaining bookmobile (the one of your author’s childhood) due, in part, to the expense of replacing the aging vehicle. The first bookmobile had cost $11,700; a replacement for Bookmobile No. 3 was estimated to cost $100,000.
Not everyone was pleased, of course, including Mary Wright who wrote a letter to the editor in January 1983 expressing her displeasure. It read, in part:
“The bookmobile is such an invaluable service because it makes books available to people throughout the city on a weekly basis. Not only children’s book, tapes and records but also book and periodicals for adults are available. Any specific book that you request can be put on the bookmobile with just a telephone call to the public library. If you have never used the bookmobile, stop by now and see what you’d be losing.”
For a while, a Friendsmobile — a van operated by Friends of the Cedar Rapids Public Library — continued to carry up to 1,300 books to various locations, but that effort, too, faded away.
The concept is not fully lost, however. Since 2021, the Cedar Rapids Public Library has supported the Mobile Technology Lab, which provides access to technology around the community. This summer, the Mobile Technology Lab added an older technology to its inventory. It started carrying some books.
We would like to thank Alison Gowans of the Cedar Rapids Public Library for her assistance with this article.
Jessica Cline is a Leadership & Character Scholar at Wake Forest University. Her dad, Rob Cline, is not a scholar of any kind. They write this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: HistoricalClines@gmail.com