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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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