Cory Doctorow posted this wonderful picture yesterday, of a “bookmobile” making the rounds at a Los Angeles hospital in 1928. In addition to just being a very cool artifact, it immediately brought to mind a talk I gave at a 2008 conference run by was then called the Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America. Below are some thoughts drawn from that presentation.
In short, this LA Public Library project was entirely of a piece with other attempts to mobilize print in order to reach people immobilized by sickness, disability, or age. Bookmobiles regularly visited hospitals, retirement homes, and the homes of individuals who could not make it to branch libraries.
In popular representations of such programs, their personal and political ramifications were intensified. In these, mobile print was meant to not merely ameliorate the effects of immobility but to actually combat it. More than bringing books to isolated people, bookmobiles would in these ideal images, bring isolated people out into full participation in the world.
With a High Heart (1945), a wonderful novel by Adele de Leeuw, provides a vivid example. Practically dying of thirst driving down a hot New Jersey highway, bookmobile librarian Anne stops at a rundown shack to beg a glass of water. There, she meets Willem Harmsma, an old man made bitter and lonely by an immobilizing disability. Where once he read voraciously—where once he derived pleasure and profit from the printed word—he has since been blinded and can thus no longer read. Made miserable by his blindness, Harmsma “hide[s] from the world” (87), never leaving his shack. He refuses a seeing-eye dog, demanding a “new pair of eyes” (89) as only possible solution to his woes. Where once he was a vibrant and productive member of society, his literacy- and mobility-impairing disability has turned Harmsma into the opposite of an engaged citizen. Or he is, at least, until Anne realizes that she can order “books that talk” (161) and use the bookmobile to deliver them to Harmsma. Newly infused with books (through the effective performance of print), Harmsma is transformed, once again, into an engaged and thoughtful citizen. He is no longer paralyzed by indignity and anger and, eventually, leaves his shack.
In other cases, the books would fight immobility in a figurative but powerful sense, using books to open up worlds and to connect isolated people to other readers. In Books and Beaux (1958), librarians Sue and Addie meet a “crippled man” who—though “confined to the space between his cot and rocking chair” by arthritis—can, through books, nonetheless imagine an ocean he has never seen and feel freer because of it (87-88). Or when Anne, too, meets a woman “crippled with arthritis…[who hasn’t] moved from [her] chair in twenty years; but…go[es] adventuring through books” (162).
There are immense problems with this manner of representing mobility and immobility. In these novels, bookmobiles and books were important technological components of the flawed but deeply significant liberal-individualist fantasy that Celeste Langan describes as “prosthetic travel.” If citizenship is predicated on the ability to move smoothly through space (as Langan argues it often is) then bookmobiles became a way to make that happen without questioning the underlying assumptions. Mobility remains an unquestioned good, and mobility disability a barrier to citizenship and participation in public life.
(Another, unrelated thing that occurred to me the instant I saw this photograph, labeled as a bookmobile, was a particular difficulty I had starting out researching my project: sometimes, when sources said “book truck,” they meant bookmobile, but most of the time, they just meant one of these. Oops. That was a recipe for endless disappointment early on.)