Public Library Book Bikes

unbound: sin fronteras in Austin

They may roll into town astride the Bibliocycle, the BookCycle, the Library on Wheels or unbound: sin fronteras.  They hail from such far-flung lands as Boston, Omaha, Los Angeles and Denver. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor threat of overdue fines stays these stalwart librarians from the enthusiastic completion of their civic appearances.  They roam the neighborhood on customized bikes, trikes, tandems and trailers, heavy-laden with books but buoyant with good cheer, and they are coming to a community event near you.  They are the biking librarians and their trusty book bike steeds.

As Earth-friendly, human-powered mobile library outposts, public library book bikes have been rolling through the streets of America since at least 2012 and are growing in number and popularity.  Among the ever-expanding book bike fleet are those of the public libraries in Berkeley, Boston, Boulder, Cleveland Heights, Denver, Evanston, IL, Longmont, CO, Los Angeles, Maricopa County, AZ, Oakland, CA, Omaha, Pima County, AZ, Seattle and here in Austin, TX.

Wherever their home base, these library book bikes share many similarities and a unified sense of purpose.  The Boston Public Library Bibliocycle, which debuted in summer 2014, believes in turning new faces into regular library patrons, integrating bicycling into daily life and encouraging healthy minds and bodies.  Across the country in Berkeley, the Library on Wheels, just a few months younger, exists to serve the community in new and exciting ways and reflect its culture of cycling and sustainability. Launched in November 2015, our Austin Public Library unbound: sin fronteras book bike is dedicated to “sharing books and other items from the collection, information and online resources with the community at non-traditional venues and community events.”  In common stands a commitment to reaching new audiences and bringing materials and services to those who may not otherwise be able to take part in the library experience.

In terms of their mission and objectives book bikes represent a sustainability-focused evolution of mobile community mini-libraries from the traditional, motorized library bookmobiles that dotted the U.S. throughout the 20th century and were active in Austin during the 1950s through the 70s.  Three decades later public libraries are eager to provide services in ways that are lower-cost, environmentally-friendly, healthy, and enjoyable for all involved. Enter the public library book bike, inspired by Gabriel Levinson’s Chicago Book Bike, which arose in 2008 when Levinson started riding his custom-built Haley book tricycle through the parks of Chicago and handing out free books to passersby.

The book bike bug spread from Levinson to “Librarian on the Move” Karen Greene of the Joel D. Valdez Main Library in Pima County, Arizona, which hit the streets in February 2012 and has motivated numerous other library systems to follow suit.  Library staff members pilot their book bikes to senior and community centers, farmers’ markets, affordable housing complexes and special occasions such as parades and Open Streets events. In Austin, unbound: sin fronteras has been especially popular at free Movies in the Park and internationally-celebrated PARK(ing) Day.  Whatever the event, the book bike is about bringing the library to the underserved and meeting people where they are. It’s also about introducing existing library users to new resources and services of which they may not be aware, from online offerings of eBooks and databases to nontraditional collections of zines, tools or seeds.  In both cases, it’s about making and keeping the library a valuable part of people’s lives. People see the book bike as creative, sustainable and useful, and staff members hope that perception extends to the library itself.

To have a successful book bike, we recommend thoughtful planning, identifying your community’s needs and how the bike can serve them, choosing the bike’s events based on those that are already popular rather than starting from scratch, and ensuring adequate funding, materials and committed riders, since even the world’s greatest book bike is worthless if there is no one to pedal it.  

While it can be a challenge to plan, build, operate and maintain a public library book bike, the results have been well worth the effort, here in Austin and beyond.  We love our unbound: sin fronteras book bike, and we are pleased to feature it as a fun, healthy, green face of the ever-evolving public library.

Many thanks to Gabriel Levinson, Karen Greene and all those who have provided me with advice and information about their book bikes since before ours was born.

Kate Abel of Austin Public Library