Books of all kinds line the shelves around me: fiction, non-fiction, biographies, young adult novels, children’s picture books. Helpful library staffers guide patrons to DVD options and CDs, or maybe language learning materials. More eager readers reach for how-to volumes and do-it-yourself manuals. You can almost see the idea wheels turning.
And those aren’t the only wheels turning here. As the last book lover walks out the door, arms laden, the step risers lift, one of the librarians jumps in the driver’s seat, and wheels are again in motion, now onto another location. Just another day in the life of the Lee County Bookmobile.
“I consider this a fully functioning library,” Principal Librarian and Regional Manager Barb Swenson tells me. “Just on wheels.”
And quite a set of wheels it is. This state-of-the-art vehicle crafted on a Freightliner chassis features its own generator, air conditioning, a wireless connection and even a wheelchair lift. At more than 36 feet long, it holds more than 4,000 titles.
The titles are selected carefully, keeping in mind the limited space and the requests of readers.
“We order materials every two weeks and get suggestions from patrons, library staff members, and research what is popular for various ages by reading magazines, journals, newspapers, best-seller lists and reviews,” says Kelly Palma, senior librarian and manager of literacy and mobile services. “The collection changes all the time. Materials are rotated frequently, and we try to keep popular authors and best-selling books on the Bookmobile.”
She and the Bookmobile staff know the importance of this mobile library throughout the year, but they were especially proud to offer this service following Hurricane Irma.
The hurricane caused destruction to several of the libraries within the Lee County system. Most notably, the popular Bonita Springs neighborhood library sustained such destruction that it was closed from Irma’s September hit until the end of 2017, leaving many with no access to its rich resources.
Damage was so extensive following the hurricane that there were no libraries in operation for families in Bonita, Estero or San Carlos Park. Patrons would have had to travel to Lakes Regional Library in Fort Myers to use computers or access materials. That’s where the Bookmobile stepped in.
“We parked up in the parking lot outside South County Regional and set up shop,” Swenson says. “We tapped into the Wi-Fi aboard the Bookmobile and had extra reference materials on tables outside the Bookmobile. For three days, the Bookmobile was the only library operating for these communities.”
“Just about every patron we interacted with … was immensely grateful and thanked us for being there,” Palma says. “In addition to using the library services, some people just needed someone to talk to and hear their story.”
Swenson adds, “At story time with the children after Hurricane Irma, we read a book about all things Florida, and ‘H’ was for ‘Hurricane.’ That led to a brief discussion about how we’re all OK now.”
Children being “all OK” is one of the many missions of the Bookmobile. Throughout the year, it participates in Boys & Girls Club events and after-school programs. It makes bi-weekly stops in a series of neighborhoods from Bonita to Fort Myers, Lehigh Acres and other locations where underserved patrons might have limited access to transportation.
The affiliation with Boys & Girls clubs brings literature to children for whom reading is not a natural pastime. Palma notes: “The Bookmobile and all library locations are very fortunate to have books to give away to children and teens during summer reading. There’s nothing like a book of your own that you can keep forever and read over and over again; or share and trade with your brother/sister or friend.”
The Bookmobile’s dedication to children and communities has been making a difference since its inception in 1965. “Bookmobile staff have watched our younger patrons grow up over the years. It’s inspiring to watch them move from picture books to easy readers and finally chapter books,” Palma says.
The Bookmobile can be requested for public events and is limited only by logistics such as parking and accessibility. Says Palma, “The largest public event that the Bookmobile has attended is the Southwest Florida Reading Festival sponsored by the Lee County Library System every March. The Reading Festival is the largest one-day reading festival held in the state of Florida, and on that day, thousands of people visit the bus. … We love to show off the bus. We’ve even gone to Touch-a-Truck and other events in the community.”
These community visits create a fondness in the hearts of children for this educational ambassador. So much so, Swenson says, that children often claim they want to live on the bus. “They also ask if we live on it,” she says. “Another question asked often is who drives. During the Reading Festival two years ago, one of the authors attending came onboard with her family. Her son refused to leave, telling her he wanted to stay with us and read all day.”
For residents with transportation or physical limitations, the neighborhood stops are vital to accessing library resources. At the Bonita Springs community pool parking lot, I speak to patron Tina DeLozier and he expresses his appreciation for the mobile service.
“I am currently not driving due to a disability,” he says. “Traveling to Estero to pick up and drop off items would be very inconvenient. It is also handicap-accessible with a wheelchair lift, and air-conditioned! I also love the fact it is parked next to the pool, which is very convenient for those that want to read at the pool.”
In the end, it’s a love of learning and literature that makes this mobile treasure so special to area residents—myself included.
As I arrived at my meeting with Swenson, she greeted me with, “But wait. I know you!”
Yes, she’d seen me use the Bookmobile at that Bonita Springs pool. And, she remembered that when I returned a recent beloved book, I was so excited about it that I recommended it to the staff.
“Well, I took you up on it, read it and loved it,” she says. And it’s that passion that keeps patrons like me coming back. May the wheels keep turning.