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Non-Traditional Mobile Libraries

The bookmobile may seem ubiquitous in the American landscape, but it is not the only form of mobile library. In India, the concept of a mobile library was introduced in 1931 during a meeting of the Madras Library Association.

Promoted by Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan (1892-1972), then Librarian of the University of Madras, this two-wheeled cart – the first mobile library in Southern Asia – echoed his ideals of library service as a means to help improve rural education.[1] Other examples of mobile libraries include the boat libraries of Finland, Norway, Indonesia, and Bangladesh; the library train of Bangkok; a biblioburro in rural Colombia; the Camel Library Service in Kenya; and Asian elephant libraries are in Thailand and Laos.

In the Ȃboland archipelago off the coast of southwest Finland, the library in the town of Pargas has used a sea rescue boat as a library boat to serve outlying islands.[2] Pargas is home to 15,511 people as of this January, over half the archipelago’s population.

According to Ms. Päivi Jokitalo, a provincial official and Coordinator of National Library Network Services, the Pargas library boat carries up to 600 books distributed between twenty-to-twenty-five boxes. The boat makes “eleven stops every four weeks from May to September.”

In 2006, the Pargas Library celebrated the 30th anniversary of the service’s establishment. This inspired Library Director Tiina Viik to expand the service.

Three of the five villages that merged with Pargas to form Väståboland in 2009 began to place book boxes on ferries that ran out to hamlets on outlying islands. Iniö, which has a population of just 253 people, was the first of these villages where the librarian began to send out five boxes of books on a ferry. Thanks to a 2007 grant from the Ministry of Education & Culture, the Iniö library was able to expand hours and procure materials.

In the Kingdom of Norway, the library boat pioneers were librarians in the southwestern county of Hordaland. With the backing of national authorities at the University Library of Oslo, service began in September of 1959.[3]

That first Norwegian library boat was called the Abdullah, in honor of a brand of cigarettes in reference to the vessel’s past as a tobacco boat. In its first month-and-a-half of service, it visited 150 coastal hamlets and lent 7,000 books.

The sixty-two-foot-long Abdullah was too small for cultural programs. She was replaced in 1962 with the larger Fjord Guide. Now the villagers who stepped aboard the library boat could watch movies or meet authors.

In 1963, the eighty-five-foot-long M.S. Epos was specially-built as a library ship, known as "Bokbåt" in Swedish or "Kirjastovene" in Finnish. The year she was built, the Library Boat became a joint venture of three counties: Hordaland, Sogn og Fjordane and Møre og Romsdal.

Bokbåten Epos carries 6,000 volumes and a library lounge. Importantly, she also has cabins and a dining room for the crew.

She sails as a library boat from September to April. Epos makes two tours, each lasting sixty-four days.

During each tour, she visits 150 villages and hamlets spread out between the three counties. In summertime, the Epos is refitted for the tourist trade.

The seven library boats of Indonesia travel along rivers on islands in the archipelago. The Kalimantan Floating Library carries around 500 books.

Abdul Hasanat Mohammed Reswan, Executive Director of the Bangladeshi non-governmental organization (N.G.O.) Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, founded the library boat project in the Nandakuja-Atrai-Boral Watershed in Northern Bangladesh. Library boats and school boats provide access to books and computers, education and technology to people in remote villages.

They rely on generators or solar power panels to power computers. For their work helping alleviate the poverty of 86,500 families spread out over 240 kilometers of land crossed by rivers and streams, Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha received a $1,000,000 2005 Access to Learning Award from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the Council on Library and Information Resources.

The Thistalalh Memorial Library, a Heilttsuk First Nation non-profit and literacy initiative in Bella Bella, British Columbia, would like to acquire a library boat so the Thistalalh Memorial Library can serve the tribe’s other communities. It describes itself as the first and so far “only all-ages public library on the outer central coast of British Columbia.”

The Railway Police in the Thai capital of Bangkok developed the Hong Rotfai Yoawachon (“Library Train for Young People”). The library train benefits street children.

Over ten years ago, Colombian grade-school teacher Luis Soriano began his biblioburro service. Soriano, who lives in the small town of La Gloria, with his wife Diana and three children, spends his weekends using two burros named Alfa and Beto to bring a circulating library to schoolchildren in the tropical interior of the Department of Magdalena, which is a province in northeast Colombia with a coastline on the Caribbean Sea.

The man and donkeys brave oppressive heat, snakes, guerillas, and bandits. He is the subject of Carlos Rendón Zipagauta’s P.B.S. POV documentary Biblioburro: The Donkey Library (2011).

Soriano began his circulating library with seventy of his own books. By the time Zipagauta made his documentary, Soriano had a collection of 4,800 donated books.

The collection filled the Soriano house and a library building made with donated funds. Soriano, his wife, and children struggle to get by on his teacher’s salary of $350 per month.

Diana and the children help solicit book donations, catalog books, and store books. She opened a small restaurant to create another revenue stream.

Kenya’s Camel Library Service is the subject of Masha Hamilton’s novel The Camel Bookmobile. In 2007, Ms. Hamilton started the Camel Book Drive to support the Camel Library Service.

As far as I am aware, the first elephant libraries were in the mountainous Omkoi District of Chiang Mai Province in northern Thailand. There are now twenty elephants in this program, Books-by-Elephant., serving thirty-seven villages

A few years ago, the provincial government and three N.G.O.s – Room to Read, Action with Lao Children, and ElefantAsia – introduced the Elephant Mobile Library to deliver children’s books and supplementary educational materials to primary schools in the Laotian province of Xaybouly. They are doing this to support literacy and endear elephants to people at a time when they are on the endangered species list.

[1] S.R. Ranganathan was a mathematician and librarian considered “The Father of Library Science” in India. His works include Five Laws of Library Science, published in 1931; Colon Classification, published in 1933; Classified Catalogue Code, published in 1934; Prolegomena to Library Classification, published in 1937; Theory of the Library Catalogue, published in 1938; Elements of Library Classification, published in 1945; Classification and International Documentation, published in 1948; Classification and Communication, published in 1951; and Headings and Canons, published in 1955.

[2] The Ȃboland archipelago is part of the province of Western Finland and the historic region of Finland Proper, the homeland of the Finns. The islands are in easy reach of the provincial capital of Turku.

[3] The Nasjonalbiblioteket (National Library of Norway) only opened in Oslo in 2005, 100 years after the Kingdom of Norway regained independence from the Kingdom of Sweden. When the University of Oslo opened (as Royal Frederick University) in 1811, the philologist Georg Sverdrup (1770-1850) became the first librarian. The royal government opened a national library facility in Mo i Rana in central Norway in 1989 for the benefit of people who lived in central and northern Norway. This is the repository of all books published in Norway. It is also where digitization of texts takes place. In 1998, the University Library of Oslo transferred national library services to the National Library of Norway. Another way one might view it is those services remained in the building at Henrik Ibsens gate on the old University of Oslo campus when the University Library of Oslo moved, as an organization, to its new home, called Georg Sverdrup's House, on the new Blindern campus in the Nordre Aker district of Oslo in 1999. The old University Library of Oslo building, erected in 1913, was renovated as the National Library of Norway that opened, as mentioned above, in 2005. This is the public department. Roger Jøsevold became Acting national Librarian on March 1, 2014.

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