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Monday, January 25, 2021

Meet MLC Monday: Margaret Smitherman

We're grateful we can help you get to know our MLC staff better, doubly so when it's our veteran staff. Welcome back to another edition of Meet MLC Monday "Senior Edition"! Margaret Smitherman has been a Readers Advisor with the Mississippi Library Commission's Talking Book Services for the Blind and Print Disabled for nearly 15 years; she started with the agency back in April of 2006. Margaret works directly with Talking Book Services members: assisting with their applications, helping with book requests and suggestions, pointing them in the right direction for other library issues, and, of course, “other duties as assigned”. Some people may not realize this, but our readers advisors are in a unique relationship with their patrons. They talk to many of these library users weekly about books they need and issues they're having. It can become a true labor of love--connecting people with books and the outside world.
Over the years, as Margaret helped people across the state with their book needs, she also helped them adapt to technology and service changes. She says, "When I first came to work here, we had a program called Lobe Library, which was a kind of trial of what our digital book program has become. I was put in charge of this program, where I sent downloaded books from an Audible platform out to a list of participating patrons on a little device that would only hold one book. We did this until the digital book service was well established in 2010."

We asked Margaret a few more tough questions, but she graciously gave us frank answers. We learned that she is a cat-loving early bird who thrives in the warm summer months. She also said that, if she had to hook up two characters from different books, that she would set up David Copperfield with Sara Crewe. "I don’t think there is any danger of them getting married, but I would love to read their letters to each other." Margaret, who is a big fantasy and sci-fi fan, told us about the most famous person she met. She and her husband took a Star Trek cruise with most of the original cast back in 1987. She says, "They were all interesting people to meet, but the one who made the biggest impression on me was Mark Leonard, who played Spock’s father. We got to know him very well, and were even part of an organization that hosted a Star Trek Convention in Jackson with him as the guest in the 1990s."

Stay tuned as we check back in with other long-time MLC staff from time to time here on Meet MLC Monday. Until next time, happy reading!

Thursday, January 21, 2021

A Letter from Your Friendly MLC Archivist

Miranda Vaughn
Reference/Archives Librarian

Dear Reader,

Today’s letter is all about an archaic little contraption from a simpler time when gas prices were only a few cents and speed limits were a new concept. They started as “traveling libraries,” but you may recognize them by their more common name: bookmobiles.

Before their work with the state government to establish the Library Commission, the Mississippi Federation of Women’s Clubs (MFWC) established traveling libraries across the state. These traveling libraries were meant to reach those who did not have access to public libraries, as much of Mississippi was rural and did not have public libraries when MFWC was first founded in the late 1800s. Once the Library Commission was formed in the 1930s, it was tasked with not only setting up public libraries in every single county, but it also took over the traveling library services. Over time, these traveling libraries came to be affectionately known as “bookmobiles.”

It took several decades to establish public libraries in all 82 counties, so MLC sent out bookmobiles to give a library experience to Mississippians who did not have access to public libraries. Based on memos from the 1950s, it seems that these bookmobiles reached several thousand people in the counties where they were used. Unfortunately, these bookmobiles were in use during times of segregation and often did not offer services to the Black population. However, in some counties they were sent to “Negro schools.” Coahoma County, for example, serviced nearly 3,000 Black students per year at segregated schools in the early 1950s.

Mississippi author, W. Ralph Eubanks, recalls his experience with bookmobiles in rural Mississippi at the end of the civil rights movement in this article. In 1955, an MLC bookmobile began servicing the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. According to a national newsletter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the bookmobile serviced six Choctaw schools in its first visit. The number of books checked out doubled on the second visit. The bureau was ecstatic!

Bookmobiles became less popular as more public libraries were built in rural areas. As rising maintenance cost clashed with available funding, Mississippi libraries began to slowly retire their wheels. By the late 1990s, most of the bookmobiles in the state were out of service. Lee-Itawamba and First Regional library systems kept their bookmobile services going. The Madison County Library System revived their bookmobile service in 2019.

The Mississippi Library Commission has offered a myriad of services over the years, but the bookmobile service is one that has sentimental value to generations of library users. It awakens the same nostalgia that comes from an ice cream truck or county fair – a sense of youthfulness and wonder. It is a book lover’s dream to have a library wherever they go. Maybe these archaic contraptions aren’t so archaic after all. 

All the best,

Your friendly MLC archivist

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