"Neighborhood Bound: Austin's Mobile Libraries" & Unbound: Sin Fronteras

In the fall of 1951, around the time that I Love Lucy premiered on television, the first bookmobile service in Travis County was launched. The American Association of University Women donated $7,000 to the city of Austin for a book bus, which started a three-decade run for the Austin Public Library's bookmobile fleet. Rising fuel costs and budgetary issues put the brakes on the bookmobiles in 1979, but now the APL is bringing the idea back in a whole new way, while paying homage to its roving predecessors.

We caught up with part of the library's active transportation outreach team – Betsy Evans, Andrew Murphy, and Conor Walker – to view "Neighborhood Bound: Austin's Mobile Libraries," an exhibit of photographs organized by the Austin History Center, currently on view at the APL Terrazas Branch, 1105 E. Cesar Chavez. The 12 black-and-white images were favorites from the boxes of photos amassed from the private community. One shows a line of smiling women and children waiting for their turn inside the bookmobile. Another features people riding bikes down an old Austin street, a nod to the coming rollout of the APL's bike-powered pop-up library service.

Carrying the baton of community literacy outreach is as integral to the library's mission as the books themselves. The midcentury fleet of four trucks and a trailer focused on communities on the fringe and those with difficulties reaching a brick-and-mortar branch. A reconstructed 3-D model of their route hangs in the exhibit, showing the regular 75 stops, including the School for the Blind, the School for the Deaf, the State School, apartment complexes, nursing homes, and, of course, schools.

Turns out the "future of Austin Public Library's mobility services" is a nod to the past success. Reconceptualizing the same idea to make the library accessible to everyone, Unbound: Sin Fronteras aims to "stretch geographic reach in an environmentally conscious and economical way." That is, what's been a growing resurgence of pop-up library tables at events across Austin will now be transported throughout the city on a brand-new custom-built tandem cargo bike and a separate, custom book-hauling trailer. "In addition to reaching people that have a hard time getting to the library, we just want to have a presence at all sorts of events. We can just ride around and say, 'Do you need Of Mice and Men today?'" quips Murphy. Evans adds, "People get excited just seeing us at a table at the farmers' market: 'Whoa, the library is here?!' So just imagine how excited they'll be about the library to see us riding down Third Street waving."

Translated, "sin fronteras" means "without borders," a sentiment that rings true. "It's for everything and everyone," says Murphy. "It's also unique in the fact that it's two city departments coming together for the program," says Walker. "Although it's a library bike, it's also with the Active Transportation Division." The team has already partnered with HOPE Farmers Market and the Ghisallo Foundation, a nonprofit organization for youth bike advocacy. "I really hope it reaches some disadvantaged communities, too. We hope the visibility of being out riding around will also bring other organizations to us to partner." It's already working. After meeting the Challenger Street Newspaper at a pop-up event a few weeks ago, the group at Terrazas Branch helped facilitate the first of several writing workshops for people experiencing homelessness.

The little library-on-wheels crew will bring a wi-fi hot spot, scanner, and relevant selection of books to pop-ups. Those in need of a library card just need a picture ID and proof of address (many options will work, even finding documents via smartphone), and they'll be ready to check out books and materials. For logistical reasons, the bookcycle won't be able to accept fines or returns to start, but it will have something of interest for everyone. "Whatever event we go to, we'll be able to curate a collection to fit," Walker explains. "So if we're going to a birdwatching event, we'll bring ornithology books."

"If we roll up to an Alamo Drafthouse screening," adds Murphy, "we could have books and DVDs on related subjects. There is no end to event possibilities."

"We just want people to know the library is cool – and probably more cool than they think it is," says Evans.

Look for the bookbike pedaling to a spot near you this summer.


"Neighborhood Bound: Austin's Mobile Libraries" is on display through Sept. 30 at the Austin Public Library Terrazas Branch, 1105 E. Cesar Chavez. For more information, visit library.austintexas.gov.

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