February 2010 Issue
Words on Wheels
A popular bookmobile delivers a variety of reading materials to the Amish residents of Holmes County.
It’s a picturesque ride, but a long one, too.
Every week, Tuesday through Friday, the Holmes County Bookmobile rumbles along dirt roads, up and down steep hills and around sharp turns in Amish Country, stopping at schools, homes and senior living centers to deliver books to Amish residents.
The 35-foot-long bus, a service of the Holmes County District Public Library system, is painted with colorful images of patrons approaching the bus on one side and exiting with books on the other. The bookmobile visits about 130 locations on a rotating basis every six weeks and circulates more titles annually per capita — 4,000 to 5,000 items each trip — than any other in the country, according to Marty LaVigne, the library system’s outreach specialist.
Each stop takes about an hour, and although it seems as though hundreds step aboard the bookmobile at each stop, librarians Gary Stutzman and Phil Yoder appear to know every resident on the route by name. They chat with patrons, inquiring about work, school or family, all while suggesting titles to suit individual requests and interests.
Not surprisingly, religious and inspirational books are favored, and farmers look for titles on organic practices, gardening and canning. Teachers along the route are regular borrowers; among their choices are books about autism and learning disorders. Amish youngsters of rumspringa age (a time during adolescence when some orders allow more worldly pursuits) are attracted to back issues of Sports Illustrated
and DVDs of television shows such as “7th Heaven” and “Prison Break.”
A day on the bookmobile means a packed schedule for the librarians, including Stutzman and Yoder, two lifelong Holmes County residents in their 50s. Due to the popularity of the service, it can take anywhere from six months to a year to add a stop, and that can only occur if another one is dropped. Until about three years ago, library patrons could be added to the route simply by calling and requesting a stop.
On a chilly, cloudy late fall day, a steady stream of Amish men, women and children arrive at the appointed bookmobile stop on foot or by bicycle or buggy. It’s hard to imagine that demand for the service could ever fall off.
With limited funds, the bookmobile librarians make the best of their resources, giving each returned volume a thorough exam and mending torn bindings or loose pages with glue, tape and rubber bands during down times.
“At one time, before the budget cuts, we used to have a limit of 50 circs before we would take [a volume] out of circulation,” Yoder says. Now, the librarians circulate books for as long as the pages hold out.
Libraries across the country are eliminating bookmobiles, but Holmes County fights to keep the 50-year-old service that has become an institution. “We’re here to provide a service,” says Stutzman, “and however we can do that is what we’re constantly trying to figure out.”
Improvements through the years include the online database, connected to the Holmes County library system about eight years ago. But even with the Internet, the librarians are constantly in motion, working in tandem as one checks books in and one checks them out with handheld scanners, and both help customers. Much like a neighborhood coffee house, the mobile library hums with the sound of patrons catching up on local news as they wait for their books to be processed.
A vital function of the bookmobile is nurturing the next generation of readers, so during summer months the librarians hold reading contests and provide craft projects. Some of the resulting art work hangs around the bus: insects constructed from cardboard paper (designed to help kids “catch the reading bug”), and dangling mosaics composed of multi-colored beans and seed corn.
In an era when kids often seem more interested in video games, it’s refreshing to see children of all ages clamoring for new titles and old
favorites. At one stop, a home-schooling mother gently tells her son that he has to finish his homework before starting his new books.
“Were you allowed to read before finishing your homework?” she asks the librarians.
They tell her no and smile, adding that they had to do both homework and
chores before getting to read.
“You better get all your work done because you picked out some good books,” says Yoder, handing the boy an overstuffed bag.
Mother and son smile as they climb down the bus’ steps and heave their books into large crates that serve as bicycle baskets. As they ride off, the bikes wobble under the weight of so many books — more than most people can imagine reading, but enough to get these two through the next six weeks.
For more information about the Holmes County Bookmobile, or to donate to the Bookmobile Support Campaign, visit holmeslibrary.org/bookmobilecampaign