The Free Library of Philadelphia has a new branch, but this one has rims, wheels, brakes and a box full of books above a three-speed handlebar. Known as a “Book Bike,” this new outreach initiative is a fully functioning mobile library that attends events around the city.
Employees hope to inspire the public to more fully embrace the city’s library system and its services.
“Everybody knows Philadelphia has a public library,” Link Ross, a children’s librarian at Haverford Library in West Philadelphia and one of the driving forces behind the Book Bike, said. “But people can’t always get to the library or don’t have a card, so why not make it easy for them?”
Ross said people often hesitate to sign up for events or enroll in classes offered at their local libraries because they have reservations. Kate Eckert, a senior librarian at the Donatucci Library in South Philadelphia and another operator of the Book Bike, explained further.
“Traditionally, libraries are institutions,” she said. “Some people are very intimidated by institutions — they don’t find them accessible or welcoming, especially if they have fines or expired cards.”
The library hopes that by providing the community with easy access to the library system through the Book Bike, people will be encouraged to take advantage of library services more often.
Donald Webster of West Philadelphia hadn’t renewed his library card in a number of years before the Book Bike rolled into the picture.
“Once I realized my card was expired, I honestly never made the effort to renew it,” he said. “I just felt guiltier and guiltier every time I thought about it, so I avoided the library altogether.”
Earlier this year, Eckert and Ross set out to change this type of mindset. Inspired by their love of books and bikes, the librarians-turned-cyclists pitched their idea to the library system’s strategic initiative funding pool and won a grant to get Philadelphia its first portable library.
“It (the Book Bike) makes libraries and books more relatable to a community that doesn’t prioritize books and reading, and literacy in general,” Eckert said.
“People who wouldn’t normally talk to me stop me on the street and ask to me about the book bike – it’s not only a fun way of taking books to people, but it has more than one function. Plus,” she said, “people who aren’t normally seeing or thinking about the library will see it, and it might spark their interest.”
Since its June debut, different librarians have pedaled the Book Bike all over the city, targeting areas with a low amount of book availability per capita.
“Any service you can bring to the community is going to be a benefit,” Ross said. “And hopefully, the Book Bike will help people become more involved in their communities, starting with being more involved in their libraries.”
For more information about the Book Bike, check out the program’s events calendar.
– Text, images and video by Cynthia Ferraz.