Wisconsin Library Heritage Center

The Wisconsin Library Heritage Center is a program of the Wisconsin Library Association Foundation promoting understanding and appreciation of the history of libraries and librarianship in Wisconsin.


Traveling libraries were the primary vehicle for extending library service to rural areas in Wisconsin for a number of decades. Lutie Stearns, the major early proponent of traveling libraries, also proposed using a bookmobile to supplement traveling libraries in 1904. That proposal was never implemented, however.

The Racine Public Library used a vehicle to extend library service to Racine County around 1922, but this may have only been used to deliver traveling libraries. Racine Public Library Librarian Muriel Marchant is pictured below with the vehicle which was referred to as the "library car".  In 1931, in its busiest year ever, it traveled 7,400 miles. The image is used with permission of the Racine Public Library.


Bookmobile service as we know it was first demonstrated in Wisconsin in 1940 using federal funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Three bookmobiles were purchased by the Wisconsin Free Library Commission using WPA funds. One of the three bookmobiles was used for a demonstration in Shawano County. In March, 1942, following a successful deomonstration, the first autonomous bookmobile service in the state was established in Shawano County. Bookmobile service in Shawano County continues today through the Shawno City-County Library. One of the three bookmobiles served Grant, Iowa, Crawford, and Rock counties. Operational funding for this demonstration which only served children was provided through contributions from 26 American Legion posts. The image below shows children using this bookmobile.  


In 1948 the Racine Public Library implemented its modern version of bookmobile service by converting a school bus for use as a bookmobile. Bookmobile service from the Racine Public Library continues today. 

The Marathon County Public Library also implemented bookmobile service around this time. The image below shows children in front of the bookmobile of the Marathon County Library Service in the winter of 1949-50. A woman identified as Mrs. Stensberg is also shown. Permission to use the image (WI.400368.bib) was granted by the Marathon County Public Library. Additional images of bookmobile service in Marathon County are in the Libraries and Schools in Marathon and Lincoln Counties Collection.


The first state funding for public library service in Wisconsin funded a bookmobile demonstration in Door and Kewaunee Counties in 1950-52. Although the demonstration was a success in terms of use by the residents of those counties, a referendum to continue the service failed in Kewaunee County. Although a similar referendum passed in Door County, both referendums were required to pass in order to continue service. Christine Pawley who has written extensively on the Door-Kewaunee Regional Library published an article in the Summer 2008 issue of the  Wisconsin Magazine of History entitled "The Wisconsin Idea in Action: Reading, Resistance & the Door-Kewaunee Regional Library, 1950-1952". The article includes several images of the bookmobile in operation. 



Image from the Wisconsin Historical Society's digital collection.

 In 1956 federal funding was made available to extend public library service to rural aread through the Library Services Act. The Wisconsin Free Library Commission developed a state plan for using this funding. It included the development of regional library systems, and bookmobiles were one component of that plan. The postcard below shows one of the bookmobiles purchased to implement this plan. The text on the back reads: "Wisconsin Free Library Commission State Capitol, Madison, Wisconsin" "Inquire about a bookmobile exhibit or project for your area, made possible in Wisconsin by a Federal-grants program to the Commission."


The Gerstenslager Co. was a major manufacturer of bookmobiles and agressively marketed their bookmobiles following the passage of the Library Services Act with postcards showing bookmobiles. The message and address side of one of these postcards is shown below. It is addressed to S. Janice Kee who served as Secretary of the Wisconsin Library Commission from 1956 to 1965.


Bookmobiles have undergone a steady decline in use in Wisconsin over the last two decades. At the end of 2014 there were only eight bookmobiles operating in Wisconsin. This was down from twenty-one in 1993. 


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