Recently I went on a Friday-night mission to visit the Bookmobile stop at Queen’s Quay and Bathurst. I took the streetcar from Union Station and met Ab Velasco, the Communications Officer at the Toronto Public Library, in the parking lot of the OMNI Television building. The Bookmobile was late that evening, all its library materials held hostage to rush-hour traffic. I asked Ab if he thought bookmobiles should be classed as emergency vehicles, and he suggested they should at least have a dedicated lane. He excused himself for a moment to apologize on behalf of the library to a small group of expectant patrons.
Fortunately, the anticipated vehicle soon came into view. I wanted to cheer! After negotiating the parking barrier, the bus positioned itself in the southeast corner of the lot. Then there was a suspenseful pause while we waited for the door to open. It was like witnessing a friendly spaceship landing!
A collective sigh was released as the last obstacle to the books was removed, spilling a rectangle of light onto the darkening parking lot. About a dozen people had gathered by then, mostly older ladies and a mother with three kids. They eagerly clambered up the steps and formed huddles by the shelves of children’s materials, the DVD shelves, and Adult Fiction area. I was impressed by the quantity and variety of items available in such a compact space, including large print books, romance and graphic novels, plus magazines in Chinese, Tamil, Spanish, and Russian.
Taking a moment to fully appreciate the Romance section, I sat down in the back of the bus on a low red-carpeted bench. My two favourite titles were Along Came a Husband and Lock, Stock, and Secret Baby. I have to say that Sex and the Single Earl had a certain something, too.
The more time I spent inside this marvel of library outreach, the more I realized how much community building it creates. My impression was that the Bookmobile’s Friday visit was a social highlight. No wonder the patrons were antsy when the vehicle was ten minutes late!
Everyone seemed to know one another. As the bus gently swayed from side to side in response to the constant shifting of weight on the ladder, patrons greeted each other by name and got updated on family news. When an elderly lady climbed up with her cane, another woman inside entreated her to be careful not to lean backwards. Not far from her, a child was exclaiming, “They have fairy books!”
The driver seemed to be enjoying his job. He was handing out large pieces of stiff paper which folded up to create a model of the Bookmobile. When one kid said he didn’t want one, the driver said (in a kind tone), “Are you too cool for it?”
The captain of this library ship wasn’t too cool to be a librarian; he wore the two hats with ease. When I went to check out a DVD, My Brilliant Career, I tried to pay him the 30 cent fine I owed. He said that they don’t take money on the Bookmobiles. (It would take a pretty low order of thief to rob a library bus, but I could see how the presence of a cash box could make the driver vulnerable).
I asked the driver what kind of capacity the Bookmobile could handle and he estimated about twenty people. He added that the adults tended to “self-regulate”, adjusting their comings and goings to the crowd-level. As for the kids, nothing could stop them from getting at the books!
Realizing I was taking up valuable space, I didn’t spend as much time at the Queen’s Quay stop as I normally would at a non-nomadic library. However, I descended the steps into the parking lot with a strong sense that I’d just experienced something truly special. This lovely library on wheels was tangible evidence of TPL’s commitment to reaching all Torontonians. This is a city where books come to the people if the people cannot easily come to the books.
It is cheering to know that the Bookmobile faithfully continues its rounds, creating joy and fellowship wherever it parks. Bookmobile 1 (the one I visited) and Bookmobile 2 make stops at 34 locations across Toronto, serving more than 32,000 people in 2009 alone. In that year, visitors checked out 165,707 items (statistics provided by Ab Velasco). According to the leaflet I picked up, these mobile branches have “computer access to the Library’s online catalogue” and are wheelchair accessible.
Thank you, Bookmobile 1 and Bookmobile 2, for embodying library outreach in the most beautifully practical way!