Books on Wheels

Story By Jeannie Stone

Between 125 and 200 persons in Pope County utilize the services of the bookmobile each month, a rolling, ever-rotating library of 2,000 books of every description. If it weren’t for the 121⁄2 ton truck, these patrons would not be able to enjoy the pleasure of reading. And the folks in Pope County support reading.

“Everyone is happy to see us coming,” bookmobile coordinator Debbie Slone said.

The new bookmobile, purchased over a year ago, has become an important link from the main library branch in Russellville to surrounding communities, nursing homes and several elementary schools which have no libraries of their own. In essence, the bookmobile serves as a mobile branch, traveling 100 miles each month.

Senator Sharon Trusty and Judge Jim Ed Gibson were the visionaries in securing state funds to cover the $130,000 cost of the new van. The bookmobile replaced another older vehicle which had been fashioned from a tool truck.

“The people in Pope County ought to be real proud,” Jackie Blaney, inter-library loan director said. Not many counties can afford a new van like ours.”

The Bookmobile features backup cameras and screen, a driver’s seat capable of swiveling around to face a check-out counter, a built in table for a laptop computer which links information from the main library, a wheelchair lift, slanted shelves for the books, a sky light, and built in seating for children.

While many libraries around the nation are cutting services and reducing operating hours, the Pope county library posted record numbers last year. According to head librarian Judy Mays, the figures for the first four months in 2008 showed a swell in patronage compared to the same months a year ago. The number of patrons increased by 1,500; checkouts increased by 6,000 items.

“One reason for the increase, I think, is that people are going green,” Blaney said. People on a budget can surely save money by checking out movies, CDs, books on tape, and yes, bound books at the library. While the uncertain economy might spell trouble for bookstores it serves as a catalyst for increased membership at the library.

The Pope County Library purchases new publications each month and accepts donations from benefactors, so patrons certainly stay abreast of new releases. Many of the donated books are earmarked for the Friends of the Library used book sales.

The summer reading program has also grown this year.

“The other night I looked over in the children’s area, and it was just packed,” Mays said. In fact, 100 young readers attended the program which featured a balloon performer. Each branch hosts a program each week. The Pope County Library serves branches in Dover, Atkins and Hector.

Slone makes sure to circulate the selections on the bookmobile, so that patrons have new choices. There are a couple of schools which receive rotating boxes of books Slone refreshes.

Although the bookmobile stops at several elementary schools, it is the nursing home visits that require a great deal of planning. Besides carrying books, children’s books and audio books, the book ladies provide an hour-long program often playing Bingo with everyone having a chance to win.

“We always read a book or an old-time story,” Slone said. “They are always so appreciative.”

“When we go to the nursing homes it absolutely takes three employees, and sometimes, we could use more,” said Vonnie Muncey, administrative assistant and financial department head. “They need a lot of assistance. We all look forward to it,” Muncey said. “We all vie for a position on the Bookmobile on those days.”

“But we have more fun than they do,” Slone said.

Slone was hired to drive the bookmobile because of her experience with the elderly and with children. She was a preschool teacher and, later, interim director for The Little Church at First United Methodist Church and a certified hospice volunteer with Arkansas Hospice Russellville.

“And those are the populations the bookmobile serves,” Blaney said.

She added, “Debbie has done a really super job. She is also in charge of maintenance for the bookmobile.”

Blaney shared that during a recent jaunt something started burning, and Slone took it right to the garage. It turned out one of the wires on the hydraulic seals had touched the heater.

Slone shook her head. “It’s always something.”

She and Blaney were visiting a school in Dover when the tornado sirens went off. “We hid with the kids while the hail pounded the roof,” Blaney said.

The librarians are happy for the heater and for the air conditioner which the old van didn’t have.

“And we’re grateful for the heater on the floor, so the kids can sit down there and be comfortable,” Mays said.

“The biggest challenge to driving the van is the size,” Slone said. “You have to turn carefully or the books will fall off the shelves. And you have to remember how tall you are. I have a camera and screen when I back up, but Jackie is my set of eyes. I couldn’t maneuver without her.”

“Another concern is the scarcity of bathrooms,” Blaney said, and everybody laughed. Some of the stops are under very rural conditions. “There is only one store in Tilley, and it doesn’t have public restrooms.”

“We consider all requests for visits,” Muncey said. “That’s why we go to Tilley, Mt. Zion cemetery and Pleasant Grove.”

“There was a little boy in London who told me he couldn’t read a chapter book by himself, but he eventually checked one out,” Slone said. “The next time I saw him, he told me, ‘I read that book, and it was real good.’ He was grinning from ear to ear. That touched me.”

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