Seattle’s Books on Bikes

I came across this story during a solo, self-supported bicycle tour around the country in mid-summer 2013 (it’s how I moved to San Francisco). I also made a short video about that trip.

With limited budgets and rapidly changing community needs, the Seattle Public Library is getting creative. Since 2010, the library decision-makers have been boldly experimenting with different ways to respond to patrons’ changing needs and interests. In doing so, they have been evolving internally, externally, socially and technologically in order to ensure “all members of the Seattle community have equal access to the world of ideas.” (SPL’s Strategic Plan 2011-2015)

One pilot project meant to increase community engagement is a new pedal-powered mobile library called ‘Books on Bikes’. The project is first full-service library in the country brought to you by bicycle. Jared Mills and other local librarians bring  books, library programs, expert book suggestions, and digital download help to different community events on their bicycles. The bikes and carts are small and nimble, thus enabling Books on Bikes to access compact event spaces.

Each place they go, the librarians tailor their trailer selection the event. They brought kids’ books for pop-up story time in the park,  gay erotica for the Pride Parade, books about the civil rights movement and by African American authors to Martin Luther King Day events, and so on and so forth. At each event, they strive to reflect the diversity of the community in the diversity of their books.

Beyond the bike, this initiative has also sparked other forms of innovation at the library. For example, Seattle Public Library designed an iPad app specifically for these mobile librarians to use. This enables potential or current library members to register for a library card, check out books, download e-books, etc. The app has the potential to later be adapted for other library purposes.

I met up with the Jared Mills, the founder of Books on Bikes, last Friday at the KEXP and Seattle Center’s Concerts on the Mural. As Electronic music blasted through the park, Mills and a fellow librarian parked near the stage to work their book-themed magic.  They were impressed with the turnout, Jared told me, but would have been happier to have a vendor spot closer to the beer garden–that’s where most of the audience congregates, after all. (see video below for excerpts from my interview with Mills)

Perhaps the coolest thing, Mills told me, is the interest they’ve received from libraries in other cities. Since Seattle’s Books on Bikes has been the first full-service library in any city, Mills and his colleagues have been offering suggestions and feedback to curious librarians from elsewhere. They’ve been talking to librarians in places like Denver who are looking to engage people in their communities in a similar way.

Since Books on Bikes is a pilot project in Summer 2013, they could only attend ten events. The cycling librarians received invitations from more venues and event planners than they could accept. Other events had to be put on hold until the library decides whether or not to allocate more library resources to the initiative. The board will evaluate program’s success this upcoming fall and make the decision then about the future of the program.

concerts at the mural

[This article was edited in September 2015 to remedy a buried lead]

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