Books on Wheels

Mobile Libraries

More than 100 buses and lorries can be seen chugging around suburbs and rural areas throughout Germany, bringing library services to people living far away from the nearest city or local library.Welcome to Heilbronn Mobile Library, where you will be greeted by a bright and cheerful room, white shelves – some cheekily arranged in asymmetrical fashion – filled with books, CDs and DVDs, a light-blue floor and red seating, not to mention a reading mat in a window recess.
“A real book lounge”, enthused the delighted visitors when the mobile library was officially opened in May 2011, declaring that the library – nicknamed “Robi” – also looks great from the outside. It is a light-blue lorry, breezily decorated with literary quotes in white lettering.

“We cared very much about how our new vehicle was designed”, explains Monika Ziller, director of Heilbronn City Library. “Mobile libraries should not only stand out in a positive way in the urban landscape, they should also be places where people feel at ease – places which people remember.” 

96 mobile libraries with 110 vehicles

Robi is just one of Germany’s fleet of 110 library vehicles which belong to 96 mobile libraries. By far the majority of them are part of a library system, with only 17 percent of mobile libraries working independently. Somewhat more than half of the libraries on wheels are run by towns and municipalities, a quarter by districts and the remainder by non-profit associations or indeed by more than one organization at the same time.

Schleswig-Holstein, Germany’s northernmost state, is a bit different. Here the existing 13 mobile libraries are organized together with 140 other public libraries in a library system managed by Schleswig-Holstein Central Library.

The variety of forms and organizations which run the mobile libraries reflects the different areas in which they are deployed: in Germany, mobile libraries are to be found both in cities and in sparsely populated rural regions.

“Mobile libraries bring library services to those people who live far away from the nearest stationary library”, explains Ziller, who is also chairperson of the German Library Association. “In my opinion, mobile libraries have been unjustly neglected. If we are thinking about how best to improve the provision of library services across large areas, mobile libraries can play a genuinely important role.” 

Technology on board the bus or lorry

As a rule, the mobile libraries are not only equipped with media of all different kinds, but also contain the technical equipment necessary to record loans and conduct library catalogue research.

Nearly two thirds of the vehicles in Germany are more than 15 years old, and some have even been travelling around the country for over 30 years. Most are buses, though recent years – mainly for reasons of cost – have also seen increasing use of converted lorries. Susanne Stökl, a librarian in Schleswig-Holstein, was specially invited to the “Mobile Library Festival 2011” in the Finnish town of Turku to present Dithmarschen district’s new mobile library truck to 340 colleagues from around the world. “So far, Finland has only used library buses. My colleagues at the festival were amazed at how spacious and bright our vehicle is inside – with everything on one level, with no steps.” 

Stopping off at schools and day-care centres

The librarians who work in the mobile libraries believe it is very important to encourage children to read. Weekday mornings, Robi in Heilbronn visits virtually all the primary schools – as well as some of the day-care facilities for children – in the city. “For the huge majority of the children, this is their first experience of a library”, says Monika Ziller. In the afternoons, the blue lorry travels to fixed stopping points around the city, stopping off at each once a week. “Although we focus strongly on children and families, we try at the same time not to lose sight of the older generation who are no longer so mobile – a balancing act which is not always that easy to achieve.”

The situation in rural areas is much the same, though of course the distances that have to be covered here are far greater: “We have 162 stops, each of which we travel to once every three weeks”, reports Susanne Stökl, who travels around the Plön region with her mobile library. As a rule, each stop takes no more than half an hour.

“60 percent of our users are children”, explains Susanne Stökl, who attaches particular importance to working with kindergartens and schools. “For the 18 primary schools in our district, the visit to the library bus is a regular part of the lesson. The classes come to us with their teachers.” Although the mobile libraries also put together boxes of media on specific lesson topics, this is not the core element of their work in Susanne Stökl’s view. “We believe it is very important to have direct contact with the children.” Their success proves how right she is: “Once school is out, the children who have got to know us also come to the stops near to where they live. In fact, they don’t just come, they come running!”   

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