by Jason Y. Lee
After 53 years, the Chatham County Bookmobile is dead.
As part of departmental budget cuts, Chatham County commissioners have eliminated funding for the traveling library. For residents of northeast Chatham, the bookmobile was the easiest way to access library books. In 2001, a consultant hired by the county found that northeast Chatham, the fastest-growing part of the county, had the greatest need for a library.
However, the county's main library wound up in Pittsboro after Central Carolina Community College donated land for it. With no library in the northeastern part of the county, the bookmobile and its driver/ librarian, Edna Johnson, spent four days a week traveling to 19 stops in that area—some bimonthly, some weekly. In addition to the bookmobile's 5,000 volumes, patrons could request delivery of books from the three other Chatham County libraries.
Commissioners considered a 5 percent cut to the library budget last January. At the time, Chatham County Public Library Director Linda Clarke recommended the bookmobile be eliminated, in addition to temporary jobs from branch libraries. Clarke said it "was a tough decision," but the greatest financial motive was the savings in reassigning Johnson to other branch libraries.
Clarke says she's aware that the loss of the bookmobile could translate to a loss in readership. But, she says statistics showed that "a lot of people that used the bookmobile also used the other branches." Last year, the Sanford Herald cited a study showing that, 222 of the 536 people who used the bookmobile in the past 12 months had also visited a branch library. "In their case it was a duplication," says Clarke. "When you're cutting back, that's going to be the first thing to go."
The commissioners deferred the final decision until a June 6 budget meeting, when the recommended cuts were officially incorporated into the county manager's yearly budget.
"Nobody likes to see any services reduced," says Board of Commissioners Chairman Brian Bock. "The bigger question is, Is the county supporting the library system? You don't have unlimited funds, so you have to prioritize."
The bookmobile served about 600 people every month. Stops included day cares, schools, retirement communities, and several neighborhoods throughout northeast Chatham. Its patrons often had limited access to the other libraries for financial, logistical or personal reasons.
Jan Hutton, self-employed and a self-described reading addict, has been a bookmobile patron for the past three years, since the recession made it prohibitive for her to buy books or travel to the library. "I'd seen this big blue bus park two miles away for years," she said. "I went over one day and fell in love."
Hutton fell in love not just with books, but with the sense of community she found there. A shy woman, she struck up conversations with her fellow regulars who quickly expanded her reading tastes. Johnson, the librarian, began to set aside new books just for Hutton. "It made Chatham County a smaller place for me," she says. "It made my reading journey a much richer one."
Deprived of that community and her books, Hutton is mulling her options. One is to drive to Chatham Community Library in Pittsboro, a costly round trip of 40 miles. She lives closer to Chapel Hill Public Library, but cannot afford the $60 annual membership fee.
The obstacles loom even larger for Mariechen Smith, an 87-year-old resident of Carolina Meadows, a community of 700 retirees and a bimonthly stop. She points out that the trip to Pittsboro library is even more daunting to those of advanced age or fixed income.
Though Carolina Meadows does have a library, its selection is limited to detective stories and other popular fiction. "This library can't serve everybody's needs," Smith says. Many of the residents have deep interests in subjects like genealogy that they can no longer explore without the bookmobile. Smith prefers to sample newer fiction and has since bought a Kindle.
The bookmobile was also a valuable resource for educators. According to Kathy Vitaro, director of the pre-K program at Silk Hope Elementary School, the bookmobile supplemented the school library as a literacy tool. The less formal atmosphere lets kids explore their reading tastes in their own ways. "It's all right there, it's just their size," Vitaro says. "The shelves are just their level. It's their own little room."
That freedom, combined with the inherent thrill of leaving the classroom, enhanced Vitaro's students' enthusiasm for books. "The children are allowed to go outside and climb into the bookmobile. It's almost like a mini field trip." When Vitaro told her class the bookmobile would no longer be coming, she says, "They were horrified."
Since learning about the possible cut in January, supporters of the bookmobile had written letters, distributed pamphlets and contacted nonprofits for support. A Chatham organization called the Abundance Foundation sponsored an ultimately unsuccessful donation campaign to fund the bookmobile. Commissioner Kost even proposed a reduced schedule that would have halved the $45,000 yearly cost. And local independent filmmaker Mark Barrosso made a five-minute film, The Last Ride of the Chatham Bookmobile.
Anne Granath, a former president and board member of the Friends of the Chatham Community Library, laments that "with some give and take," and some more time, a deal could have been worked out for the bookmobile. As it is, she says, "the bookmobile is dead in the water."
Clarke hopes to compensate with the library's new ebook initiative. It is set to debut in the fall and the library would provide free ebooks to those with ebook readers. Also pending is the Bookbuddies program from the Friends of the Chatham Community Library, a community organization that supports the library in Pittsboro. Clarke describes the program as similar to a "Meals on Wheels" book delivery system, although the details and a launch date are undetermined.
"I don't think we've exhausted all the solutions at this point," she says. "Because we've always had the bookmobile, we didn't have to explore the other options."
Commissioner Bock agrees. "I don't think the bookmobile is the only source of books for most residents," he said, save for a "small portion." He adds that "It's not like 15 years ago, when the only access to books was the bookmobile." The need for a library in northeast Chatham, too, he says, requires "long term plans"
And the fate of the big blue bus itself? "I don't know the answer to that yet," Bock says. "But I think we've got some options to keep it in county use."