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As a bookmobile turns 60, its librarians reflect on changing roles

The Four Counties Public Library keeps the bookmobile in a horseshoe shaped garage in Vestal. The walls are curved so the drivers can enter and leave the garage without reversing.
Megan Zerez
The Four Counties Public Library keeps the bookmobile in a horseshoe shaped garage in Vestal. The walls are curved so the drivers can enter and leave the garage without reversing.

It's been 60 years since the Four Counties Library System bookmobile first hit the road serving small communities in Broome, Chenango, Delaware and Otsego counties. Its librarians say their role in the community has changed a lot over the past few years.

When it's not out on the road, the Four Counties Library System keeps its bookmobile in an unassuming brick garage in Vestal.

Librarian Sarah Reid said inside, it’s like a smaller version of any other public library.

"We've got fiction, best sellers . . . two very stuffed shelves of picture books," Reid said. "And large print [books] because we serve a lot of older adults."

There's a few differences though, Reid said. Like the bungee cords.

"[Our driver] Bill forgot to bungee his chair down the one day and it was up in front of the vehicle," Reid laughed.

The bookmobile stops at community centers and granges, nursing homes and at one point, a correctional facility.

"We're serving communities where there is not a brick-and-mortar library," Reid said. "So a lot of rural communities. And most of our communities have been on the list for a long time, some of them for the full 60 years."

A lot has changed since 1963. Reid said the library has had to adapt to many challenges, like the pandemic.

The bookmobile had to cut back some of its visits during the height of the pandemic — particularly to nursing homes, which were largely closed to visitors. Reid said once service resumed, it was clear the bookmobile had been sorely missed.

"The first person that came on [once we returned], she was like, 'The books!'" Reid said. "She was trying to hug all of the books because she was someone who preferred to browse."

Library Director Steve Bachman said sometimes the mobile library serves as the main point of connection to the outside world — like for inmates at the now-closed Camp Pharsalia Correctional Facility in Chenango County.

"Everybody was on their best behavior, because the bookmobile was a privilege," Bachman said. "Books started to be used as currency, because the guy who was able to get his hands on the book of the moment was a very important person in the facility."

Bachman said the communities along their route have seen more change than most.

"A lot of the small rural communities that we serve have residents who've seen opportunities and businesses and services dry up and leave town," Bachman said.

He said the bookmobile has been able to fill in the gaps when a brick-and-mortar library closes. But there’s a lot less library funding today compared to 20 years ago. And that means that they too have had to cut some stops from their route in recent years.

"To be one of those services that did that to them as well was very painful," Bachman said.

And today, the services libraries provide often go beyond just books.

"Every now and then somebody has a great idea to save money by moving a service online," Bachman said. "And when they do, they leave people behind. And more and more, libraries have been tasked with trying to pick up those people and help bring them along."

Librarian Circe McKenney said that might mean helping people file their taxes online. Or helping someone apply for a job. And more recently, fact checking things that people see on social media or TV.

"A lot of it was political," McKenney said. "They would see something about a political candidate or, or situation and go, is that true?

But McKenney said when it comes to the mobile library, some challenges have remained constant, like tractors.

"We were making our last stop of the day. And we got stuck behind a very slow moving tractor, as one does. And so we were a few minutes late," McKenney said. "We got there and people were waiting to get on the bookmobile. They were like, 'Oh, we were so worried. Are you guys okay?' and we were like, 'Yeah, just a tractor.'"

McKenney and the other librarians say they hope the library — and the bookmobile — will be there for people for many years to come, no matter what they might need.

Reserve books, check schedules and learn more about the Four Counties Bookmobile online here.