Does the idea of a bookmobile in a “rich” city that already has 99 library branches strike you as an anachronism?
If so, you must not have visited one. The library’s bookmobiles are the single most wondrous and charming feature of Toronto I’ve set eyes on in my 20 years here.
Yes, they’re that good. And we’ve got two of them.
Last Sunday I schlepped out to East York Town Centre (not Civic Centre) on Overlea Blvd. to visit Bookmobile Two, parked at the edge of the lot alongside some kind of sinister fairground attraction that looks like it’s coiled and ready to strike.
A branch on wheels
This tiny Thomas bus – all you need is a normal G licence to drive it – has every feature of a library branch except a washroom and reference and third-language books. And surly librarians. (Kidding! I know only two of those.) What it’s got:
Books and magazines for grownups and kids.
The magazines were kind of old and stale that day, and they were mostly wymmynz titles like Cosmo Girl. Still, I snagged what could be the only issue of Men’s Health in living memory featuring a cover model wearing a shirt.
Two shelves of DVDs.
A shelf of audiobooks.
Piles and piles of comic books.
Magazines in Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Tamil.
A couple of seats (people do sit there and read).
(Incidentally, I kept thinking of the bookmobile back in New Brunswick while growing up, labelled bilingually as Bookmobile and Bibliobus. Anglo kids had tons of fun with that word, let me tell you.)
Pretty much anything you can do at a library branch you can do here. You can check out and return books (done on a Windows laptop with a wireless card – it’s connected to the network in real time).
You can choose the bookmobile as the location of your holds and pick them up here. (Everything on the bus is holds-exempt, so people from other branches won’t snatch it away from you.) And – wait for it – you can ask for and receive an interlibrary loan. (People do.)
The bookmobiles sleep in an underground garage at Mel Lastman Square. North York Central Library is their headquarters, with their own little office, apparently.
TPL’s plan is for pretty much everybody in the city to be within a kilometre of a library branch. Not everybody is, of course. Now, maybe eventually every little gap in the city will be filled with branches, but for now the bookmobile is a cheap way to provide basic library service. The Thorncliffe branch near this parking lot is under renovation, so Bookmobile Two visits this pocket of East York twice a week. But the bookmobiles drive all over the place – way up to Steeles Ave. sometimes.
How do they avoid a Lucille Ball/Long Long Trailer scenario with books flying onto the floor whenever they race around a curve like in a cop show on TV? I thought they had to have netting or bungee cords or something, but nope: The angle of the shelves takes care of it.
I figured that the lock and handle on one of the shelves had something to do with securing the cargo. Boy, was I wrong.
The library bills these buses as being wheelchair accessible. You can see a cutout for a lift of some kind on the outside, but where the heck is it on the inside?
It’s hidden behind a trap door. See that lock and handle?
It’s straight out of Agatha Christie! Seriously, why can’t there just be a certain leather-bound volume you pull out to open the door and reveal the chairlift?
Has this charmed your pants off yet?
Well, it should. They thought of everything. The bookmobile is like a really well thought out New York apartment: Everything you need, sometimes slightly smaller than you’re used to, in exactly the right place with nothing wasted. If you’re sensitive to these things, you can get a feeling of excellence of design. The library’s recently-renovated branches are justly celebrated for such a quality, but these tiny bookmobiles also have it in spades.
Then there’s the people. You know, the reason we’re doing all this.
I stood around and had a lovely chat with the shy librarian, Gary. (The even-shyer page kept to herself.) He’s been doing this for ten years (“I’m one of the newbies”) and also works on the Home Library Service, which delivers books to seriously ill or disabled people who can’t get out of the house. This takes a certain gentleness and sensitivity, which seemed readily apparent.
I ended up closing the place (like being the last one out of a bar), and in the hour or so I spent there, only a couple of adults came in by themselves. Everyone else was moms and kids, seemingly all of them Indic (with lots of intermingling of languages within and between sentences). They were obviously regulars and it was obviously a big deal for them. And the kids were almost jumping with joy at being there.
You know all those articles you read about how kids don’t like to read articles, let alone books? How literacy is declining and so on? This doesn’t make a lot of sense in the face of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, so we know that part of the problem is that pundits expect children to typewrite school essays on classics of literature at the age of ten. They’re looking for literacy in yesterday’s places. And Gary tells me that many other stops serve mostly seniors. Fine.
But in the short time I spent on the bookmobile, I saw nothing but kids who were deliriously happy to paw through piles of books and comics (helpfully positioned for them down by the floor). Maybe they’ll go home and play computer games for the rest of the day, but for the people who don’t have a library nearby and have to rely on the bookmobile, literacy is not dead. (And from the looks of it, most of these kids are bilingual anyway.)
Your tax dollars at work. And worth every penny.