February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

WA’s Pierce County Library System Bids Farewell to Bookmobiles After 65 Years of Service

After more than 60 years in operation, the Pierce County Library System in Tacoma, WA, is saying good-bye to its three bookmobiles as a result of drastic budget cuts.

The Explorer Kids’ Bookmobile will stop serving schools as of August 31. And in mid-November, the Explorer, along with the library’s family bookmobiles, will cease traveling to local communities. As a result, a total of five positions—including three bookmobile operators—will be eliminated, says Mary Getchell, the library’s community relations director. Some may get reassigned.

The library’s board of trustees agreed to the cuts earlier this month in order to offset an anticipated $2.6 million to $3 million budget shortfall for 2013, which amounts to approximately 10 percent of the library’s $26.8 million 2012 operating budget. Stopping the bookmobiles will save the library $180,000.

At the beginning of 2012, the library significantly reduced its bookmobile services to rural and remote areas, and determined that it could serve more kids at a lower cost by stopping the bookmobiles, says Getchell.

“We also examined the use patterns of our bookmobile customers and found that many of them use our in-library services, too,” she explains.

The library board reached its decision after finding out the less than one percent of the library’s 256,000 card holders use the bookmobiles, which have been primarily been serving low-income neighborhoods in central Pierce County—Frederickson, Graham, Waller, Midland, Summit, Parkland, Spanaway, Fife, and Lakewood.

The library has offered bookmobile service since 1947. And at that time, 37 percent of all of its checkouts were on the bookmobile.

“Today, we offer 18 libraries and online services, with less than one percent of all of our checkouts coming from the bookmobiles,” explains Getchell. “We are moving to a new way of service for children in low-income neighborhoods where the bookmobiles served.”

That includes serving kids in schools and in after-school programs located in three school districts where the library has provided bookmobile service.

“We are working with the schools to determine how best to meet the reading needs of their students,” Getchall adds. “We are considering bringing books to schools on carts in vans. We will continue to serve the people who used the bookmobiles and who are not students through our 18 libraries and online library.”

About 700 people regularly use the bookmobiles, with a checkout of nearly 6,000 items a month. The majority bookmobile card holders were kids in elementary and middle school.

“Sadly, we can no longer afford to run the bookmobiles, [but] we have far more ways of serving children in the schools, in the libraries, and online, Getchell says, adding that the library offers trained librarians and staff to provide assistance, as well as more books and materials, computers, and Wi-Fi.

“We are committed to getting books into the hands of children throughout our service area,” says Neel Parikh, the library system’s executive director. “We believe with this new way of delivering library service we will serve even more children than we did with the bookmobiles, which are aging and costly to operate, especially in today’s economy.”

Will low-income students still have Internet access? Getchell says based on information from the nearby Franklin Pierce School District, the library learned that about 90 percent of those in their service area have Internet access at home. “So, yes, some people will have access to the online library from their home,” she say, as well as at the library and at school.

“The bookmobiles have been a personal, friendly and valued service for 65 years,” says Parikh. “We now serve people in many different ways—with downloaded books directly to your phone and iPad and 18 library buildings throughout the county. This new direction of serving kids, who are the most in need, directly in their schools will also move us forward in our commitment to support reading and learning.”

When asked is school librarians were expected to replace the bookmobile service, Getchell responded, “No, we are working with the schools to provide books and movies to students that will help the students in their studies and leisure reading.”

So far, the community has been understanding. “The schools are very supportive and will work with us to help us reach even more students in this new way of service directly in the schools,” Getchell says. “One staff member told me that several of the principals were sad to see this service go, but they totally understood budget issues. We have heard from some other people who have used the bookmobiles and they understand the change, but again they are sad to see this way of service end—in the sense of an end of an era feeling.”







About Debra Lau Whelan

Debra Whelan is a former senior editor for news and features at SLJ.