VINTAGE FRIDAY: Looking Back At Bookmobiles
The library is a staple of many a postcard-worthy town, and though they are becoming increasingly decorative rather than functional, the idea of a free source of information is still a powerful and relevant one, especially so as our online service providers continue devising craftier ways to make money on our Netflix binging habits. Maybe the modern idea of a library includes a place for homeless people to watch questionable videos on the computer terminals, and that’s a pretty funny real-life metaphor for their declining popularity due to the Internet, but they are still an important source of pleasure and knowledge.
Big cities have big libraries and small towns have smaller ones, but before the interconnectedness of today the remote and rural communities were likely to have none. Or at least not in the same place. The idea of a mobile library likely began in the mid-19th century when our horsepower still came from the animals themselves, and the idea held on for roughly 100 years after the earliest horse- and donkey-drawn carts carried books to the people who might not otherwise have access to them. The carts gave way to converted vans and buses on the deluxe side of the idea, while they could be as simple as a small car carrying a crate of paperbacks in the back.
It’s strange to look back at these photos and see children piling up in line to get their sticky mitts on books when today even the ice cream truck is a becoming a relic and a novelty, and the only reading most of us do is the bare minimum of an instruction booklet when we buy a new TV.
It seems these days our attention spans are reaching maximum compression; we spend hours on computers never really accomplishing anything through the bombardment of little distractions, and the feeling that if you aren’t constantly on the virtual move you must be missing something good. We end up trying to fit as much as we can into our nets. The problem is that we never really engage with anything deeply. It’s just a bunch of light touches and nothing sticks. If after a few hours of directionless time online you feel like I often do, which is to say “What have I just done with the last quarter of my day?” I think that’s a clear symptom of our inability to pay attention for more than a few minutes in the face of the unending flow of news, games, jokes, clips, lists, etc. It’s not that this stuff is bad on its own, it’s that we feel the need to jam so much of it into our day. Conversations become reference-based, we rarely revisit happenings in the world after their airtime’s up, nothing feels like it has any weight.
That’s why looking at these photos of old bookmobiles is so refreshing. It’s clearly rudimentary—and that’s why they don’t really exist anymore save for a few little municipal projects—but it’s also a reminder of what our priorities should be in the present day. I’m not trying to get prescriptive and condescending by spouting off about how reading good books is the best use of your limited time (I am hoping that you’ll read this short blurb about bookmobiles on the internet after all, which would make me quite the hypocrite!). The only thing I want to say after this rambling is that maybe instead of trying to learn about or enjoy a bunch of little mental snacks the next time you have a few hours free, why not pick a smaller selection and spend more time being immersed in them?