Back in 1948, Oak Harbor was a tiny farming town where the Navy was trying to figure out what to do with a small seaplane base it hastily built in 1942. Coupeville was the Island County seat, population about 350, with an antique downtown that served almost entirely locals. Langley was the best-known burg on the Rock, population more than 400, close to the private Black Ball ferry that served Mukilteo and Clinton. And, oh yes, Langley had a public library, first opened in 1923. It was the only library on Whidbey Island until the late 1980s.
Meantime, across the Saratoga Passage in northern Snohomish County, the rural district that served a number of small public libraries there took a giant post-war step forward. It bought a giant van, loaded it with carts full of books and dubbed it the area’s first bookmobile. It visited schools, community centers and nursing homes, and brought books requested by individuals to their homes.
It was a huge hit and this year that bookmobile celebrates its 75th anniversary.
However, the bookmobile didn’t come to the Rock until 1961. At that time, voters were considering whether to set up an inter-county library system combined with the rural Snohomish district. The bookmobile was part of a library service demonstration on the island to encourage support for the idea. In 1962, voters approved the proposal and the Sno-Isle Library District was created.
For the next 25 years, the bookmobile and the Langley library remained the only library service on Whidbey. Coupeville’s library opened in 1988, Oak Harbor’s in 1993, Freeland’s in 1994 and Clinton’s in 2000.
Today, Sno-Isle calls its bookmobile part of its “library on wheels” service, and Sonia Gustafson is the manager.
“We have five vehicles,” she said. “We have a community bookmobile that people can get on and browse. We have a similar vehicle we use to transport book carts to senior living facilities. And we have three small delivery vans that we use to deliver books to child care centers, adult family homes and some private homes.”
What’s remarkable is that demand for library on wheels services keeps growing, according to Gustafson — despite the internet, digital books, audio books, podcasts and books by mail on request.
“Reading a real, printed book that you hold in your hands is really preferred by most people today, especially kids,” Gustafson said. “Reading a book on your phone or tablet just isn’t the same experience since so many of us spend our days staring at a computer screen.” The big bookmobile still comes over the Deception Pass Bridge occasionally for special events; it recently spent time at an Oak Harbor child care center’s family field day. But most of the library on wheels services are done by the other vehicles.
“We take the cart haulers to senior living facilities on Whidbey,” she said. “We roll a cart in and the residents can browse and check out books.”
Sno-Isle now sends a newsletter telling people what’s new and popular so they can request that some titles be on a cart on the next visit. It will also mail books to individuals by request. And on Whidbey it still brings books to a few individuals at their homes, although that service is not adding new customers because of the growth of books-by-mail.
The original bookmobile was retired decades ago. But the success it launched 75 years ago is still reflected in today’s modern fleet of five book-hauling vehicles.