Friday, April 02, 2021 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

The idea of packing books into a vehicle for distribution predates the automobile, but mobile library collections became a reality in Charleston County during the golden age of the motor car. Since the first gasoline-powered bookmobiles hit the road here in 1931, generations of tireless drivers have carried many tons of books to remote corners of the county to foster a love of learning outside of traditional libraries. As CCPL’s thirteenth bookmobile, or “mobile library” prepares to continue this ninety-year-old tradition, let’s review a brief history of the county’s books (and more) on wheels.

The first branch of the Charleston Free Library, as it was initially known, opened on January 1st, 1931, within a portion of the Charleston Museum on Rutledge Avenue. Like many other public libraries of that era, its creation stemmed from a collaboration of public and private funds. Charleston County government provided the seed money, but most of the early capital came from the Rosenwald Fund and the Carnegie Corporation. Those donated funds, predicated on generous philanthropic principles, required the new library to provide free service to all residents of Charleston County. Because most of the local population lived in rural areas at that time, the library’s first challenge was to extend service across eighty miles of Lowcountry terrain that includes numerous sea islands.

 

The library’s local founders fulfilled part of that obligation within the first few months of operation by creating several small branches in borrowed buildings ranging from Edisto Island on the south end of the county to McClellenville on the north. At a meeting in May 1931, however, the board of trustees determined that there would never be sufficient funds to hire or build branch libraries in every community across the broad county. The solution to this geographic conundrum was to follow the automotive trend established by other public libraries across the nation. The first mobile library, or bookmobile, in South Carolina had debuted in Greenville County in 1923, and other counties were following suit. In the late spring of 1931, the trustees of the Charleston Free Library authorized the purchase of the first in what would become a long series of vehicles to carry books to rural residents.

Charleston’s first bookmobile was a model 1931 Chevrolet truck, purchased that spring in Charleston and sent to a firm in Columbia for modification.[1] Between the two rear wheels, craftsmen built a large rectangular box with four exterior book shelves along each side and a door at the rear. The 300-odd books displayed on the exterior shelves were selected for browsing customers standing next to the parked vehicle and were protected by pairs of hinged glass doors when the vehicle was in motion. The interior space between the rear wheels was used to transport boxes of books to supply the various library branch collections around the county.

The finished vehicle arrived in Charleston in early September and commenced its rural deliveries in mid-October of 1931. The first driver was Helen Sloan Torrence (1875–1970; later Mrs. Moorman), a veteran librarian who singlehandedly managed the book deliveries and toured dusty country roads with a white toy poodle named Timmie. Wherever they stopped, enthusiastic children swarmed the vehicle to devour the books selected by the kind lady and her canine mascot.[2] Within its first year of operation, the “book truck,” as it was then called, established a monthly schedule of eight routes, covering the areas of Edisto Island, Wadmalaw Island, St. Paul’s Parish, John’s Island, James Island, St. Andrew’s Parish, North Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Sullivan’s Island, Awendaw, Tibwin, and McClellanville.[3]

Charleston County’s first book truck traversed tens of thousands of miles during its first few years, at a time when the average lifespan of an automobile was much shorter than that of later generations. The 1931 model was replaced in late 1935 by a brand-new Chevrolet truck fitted with a similar arrangement of exterior shelves covered by hinged glass doors.[4] That vehicle also endured for less than five years, and was exchanged in the summer of 1940 for a stylish new Ford Marmon-Herrington. The new vehicle featured the popular “woody” body style of that era and included the usual complement of exterior shelves behind glass doors.[5]

During the first fifteen years of mobile library service, the Charleston Free Library operated a single vehicle to serve rural populations that resided largely in segregated communities. Service within the library’s fixed branches was strictly segregated, in keeping with local laws and customs of that era, and its mobile service followed that same pattern. It’s unclear, however, whether the segregated patrons shared the same stock of circulating books. As the mobile library established a routine of stopping alternately in neighborhoods that were predominantly Black and White, rural residents learned when to expect the book truck through word of mouth and the local media. Local newspapers and radio stations began announcing its schedule as early as 1932, but the practice did not become a regular weekly feature of the local news until the summer of 1941.[6]

At some point in late 1946 or early 1947, the library purchased a 1946 Chevrolet delivery wagon to augment its mobile service.[7] This roomy vehicle included a pair of doors on the rear end, much like the earlier book trucks, but it lacked the customized exterior shelves of its predecessors. Internal shelves installed above each of the rear wheels accommodated a smaller number of books and hampered access to the mobile collection. Although the extant board minutes of this era provide no specifics about its purpose, the 1946 Chevrolet wagon was apparently intended as the county’s first segregated bookmobile. This vehicle is barely mentioned in extant library records, but a 1950 photo of it parked next to the John’s Island Community Center confirms that it was used for what the library administration then called “Negro” service.

In the context of discriminatory Jim Crow politics in the American South during the first half of the twentieth-century, it might seem unusual that the Charleston Free Library assigned a brand-new vehicle to serve the African-American population in 1947 while simultaneously using an older, run-down vehicle to serve the White community. That situation was soon reversed, however, when the library took delivery of a late-1947 model Chevrolet truck. Like its predecessors, this new vehicle had been purchased locally and shipped northward for the installation of a customized body with exterior shelves and glass doors built by James Watson and Sons of Wilmington, Delaware. When it returned to Charleston in mid-May 1948, the new Chevy immediately replaced the aging 1940 Ford for what the library then called “White” service.[8]

The terms “White bookmobile” and “Negro bookmobile” appear occasionally in the library’s extant records, but mid-twentieth century administrators seem to have preferred a numbering system as part of their evolving vocabulary. “Book truck” rather than “bookmobile” was the standard local term in the 1930s and early 1940s, although the phrase “library van” was used occasionally. The Charleston newspapers of 1940 printed the term “bookmobile” in quotation marks, but its use soon became commonplace. In the library’s board minutes of the late 1940s, therefore, we find many references to “Bookmobile No. 1” and “Bookmobile No. 2.” In all cases, from 1948 through the mid-1960s, the primary number always described the newest vehicle that was used for “White service,” while the secondary number always indicated the hand-me-down vehicle assigned to “Negro service.”

The library’s first five bookmobiles, regardless of the patrons they served, shared one problematic feature: their functionality was limited during periods of inclement weather. The arrangement of books on exterior shelves behind glass doors facilitated easy access to mobile patrons, but that attractive feature was less appealing during cold weather and rainstorms. Furthermore, the constant exposure to the elements shortened the lifespan of the books within the mobile collection. Even the sheltered bookshelves of the 1946 Chevy used for “Negro” service rendered it impossible for customers to browse at their leisure.

The solution to all of these problems arrived in the next generation of larger bookmobiles that invited patrons to step within the body of a petit library-in-a-box. In the summer of 1952, the Charleston Free Library purchased a “Metro” model step van from the International Harvester Company and shipped it to the Rock Hill Body Company for the construction of interior shelving and a desk for the librarian. Customers entered the vehicle through a door near the front and exited through a door near the rear. The customized “Metro” van arrived in Charleston in mid-December 1952 and was immediately put into use for Charleston’s “White” population. At the same time, the 1946 Chevy wagon was assigned to other library duties and the 1947 Chevrolet book truck was transferred to “Negro” service.[9]

In the autumn of 1954, the trustees of the Charleston Free library requested funds from County Council to acquire a similar van-type vehicle for what it called “Negro work.” The trustees noted that the two existing bookmobiles stopped at eighty-one sites across the county every month, in addition to servicing book collections at fifteen small branches, twenty-three “community deposits,” and eighty “school deposits.” Council declined to fund another purchase, for the third year in a row, however, and repeated its refusal a fourth time in 1955. The county finally agreed to appropriate funds for a second van in the summer of 1956. The 1947 Chevy truck died before the end of 1956, but a new International “Metro” step van arrived in early 1957 and immediately re-started the county’s African-American book stops.[10]

The library’s final segregated vehicle arrived in early 1960, when the library purchased a Ford Vanette step van that was assigned to “White” service. That spring, the 1956/7 step van, which was prone to mechanical problems, was demoted for use only “in emergencies and to run errands,” while the older 1952 step van became the “Negro” bookmobile.[11] Meanwhile, Charleston County’s new main library, which opened to the public in November 1960, welcomed all citizens without the racial barriers of previous generations. Other branches followed suit in the succeeding years, and the library’s two bookmobiles became integrated—or interchangeable—by the mid-1960s.

The remaining chronology of mobile libraries in Charleston County follows a unified trajectory of outstanding service to all its citizens. For a further twenty years—into the mid-1980s, the library maintained a pair of bookmobiles that were constantly on the road to deliver books and audio materials to children and adults across the Lowcountry. Most of this work was carried out through a succession of customized vehicles purchased from the Gerstenslager Company of Ohio, which arrived in the spring of 1966, 1969, and late 1978, respectively. These vehicles were sufficiently robust that the oldest one was placed on blocks in early 1979 and became the first fixed library branch for the St. Paul’s-Hollywood community.[12]

As the library’s older bookmobile became increasingly unreliable in the early 1980s, the county administration began to focus on providing more service through a single vehicle. An enhanced and larger bookmobile was ordered in the spring of 1985, but, due to contractual complications, did not arrive until the end of 1987. Many Charlestonians probably remember that long, gray, Thomas-built vehicle festooned with maroon stripes and the slogan “Reach out and Read” along its rear, which plied along local highways until 2006.

As economic conditions generally improved across Charleston County during the final years of the twentieth century, the library began to refine and reimagine the role of the bookmobile within the community. The advent of newer and better schools, improved roads, and a larger number of permanent library branches, all conspired to push the faithful “book truck” out of the mainstream consciousness. For more than half a century, the successive bookmobiles had played an integral role in the local school district’s summer reading program. They had delivered books and music to tens of thousands of people who could not visit a library in person. Local radio and newspapers routinely announced the bookmobile schedule every week from June 1941 through the end of 1993, but then stopped. For some people, the mobile library seemed irrelevant at the dawn of the new millennium.

Despite the advance of prosperity, mobility, and equality across Charleston County, there are still many citizens living in our community who have limited access to the educational and media resources that so many of us take for granted. The Charleston Free Library, now the Charleston County Public Library, continues this venerable mission by striving to bring books, music, games, and digital content to customers living among neglected, disadvantaged, and vulnerable populations. Traditional print materials continue to be part of the mission, of course, but present and future goals focus on a variety of media to enhance inclusivity, accessibility, and a general love for learning in our community.

The library’s familiar yellow bookmobile that hit the road in 2006 quietly entered retirement just as the pandemic descended on the Lowcountry in the spring of 2020. Its replacement, now officially called the Charleston County Mobile Library, has been waiting in the wings for many months, and it’s ready to roll. This thirty-seven-foot bus, our second from Matthews Specialty Vehicles, carries more than 1,500 items for patrons of all ages, has eight on-board computers, and casts a wi-fi net up to 200 feet beyond its wheels. It also carries interior and exterior screens to facilitate pop-up programs that can transform a visit into a learning adventure.

In coordination with National Library Week, during the first week of April 2021, the Charleston County Public Library proudly launches its new Mobile Library with a series of events and promotions. On behalf of my excellent colleagues in the library’s Outreach Department, we invite you to click on a few links to learn more about the latest efforts to continue the library’s ninety-year-old tradition of mobile knowledge. The vehicles and mascots might have changed over the generations, but the inclusive spirit of outreach remains the same.

 

 

To see more historic photos of Charleston's early bookmobiles, follow this link to the Lowcountry Digital Library.

 

 

[1] Charleston Evening Post, 12 September 1931, page 2, “Library Truck Ready for Use.” This vehicle was not specifically identified as a Chevrolet, but the stamped profile of its hood side grills, as seen in extant photos, confirm its brand. Most of the information for this essay is drawn from the extant minutes of the library’s board of trustees, which are held with the library’s archive at the Main branch.

[2] Evening Post, 3 October 1931, page 3, “New Stations Library Van”; Evening Post, 13 October 1931, page 2, “County Traveling Free Library”; News and Courier, 23 October 1931, page 1B, “Van Makes First Trip.” For more information about the poodle mascot, see Helen Sloan Torrence Moorman, Timmie Torrence (Charleston, S.C.: Nelson’s Southern Printing, 1961).

[3] Charleston News and Courier, 9 October 1932, page 12, “Library Reaches Whole of County.”

[4] According to the board minutes of 20 December 1935, the library paid $728 for a new book truck, but the make and model were not mentioned. The Chevrolet badge is visible on the hood of this 1935 vehicle in a 1937 photo of it parked on an unidentified beach.

[5] According to CCPL’s 1940 financial audit, Schedule II, the 1935 Chevrolet was traded-in on the purchase of the 1940 “new truck.”

[6] News and Courier, 12 September 1943, page 31, “Bookmobile Serves Entire County,” by Martha Koopman.

[7] According to the audit of the 1946–47 fiscal year (ending 30 June 1947), the library paid $1,316.35 for a new “truck.”

[8] According to “Exhibit A” of the audit of the 1947–48 fiscal year (ending 30 June 1948), the library paid $2,517.31 for a new “motor truck,” and received $225 credit for “sale of Ford automobile” (the 1940 Ford Marmon-Herrington). According to “Exhibit C” of the same audit, the library received $325 credit for the same Ford.

[9] See the library’s board minutes of 3 July, 9 October, and 12 December 1952; News and Courier, 25 December 1952, page 9A, “Free Library Gets New Bookmobile.”

[10] See the library’s board minutes of 21 September and 7 December 1954; 8 March, 27 June, 6 December 1955; 3 July, 27 September, 4 December 1956; 18 February 1957.

[11] See the library’s board minutes of 20 July 1959; 10 February 1960; 18 July, 14 September 1961.

[12] CCPL Board minutes of quarterly meeting, 13 February 1979; Charleston Post and Courier, 28 March 1998, page D3, “Jan Buvinger” People are librarian’s first priority.”

 

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