WHITLEY CITY, Ky. Kaylee Lay, who is 5, was so happy to see the bookmobile pull up in front of her house in McCreary County recently that she ran outside with no shoes, then reached up for her mother to carry her over the rough ground.
“She got so excited,” said her mother, Katie Lay. “She said, ‘The bookmobile’s here!’”
That kind of enthusiasm that has helped keep the largest fleet of bookmobiles in the nation operating in rural Kentucky, delivering books to people who often can’t get to county-seat libraries.
Supporters say bookmobiles play an important role in promoting reading at all ages, but especially among children, helping them do better in school.
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“We just think having books in the hands of kids is really, really important, and it sets them up for life-long learning,” said Rhonda Kendziorski, bookmobile and outreach librarian for the McCreary County Public Library.
In the most recent national count in 2014, 75 Kentucky counties had traditional bookmobiles, said Michael Swendrowski, a board member with the Association of Bookmobiles & Outreach Services.
The next closest states were Ohio and California with just over 50 each, he said.
Several states reported having only a handful of bookmobiles — six in Texas, for instance, three in Kansas and two in Oklahoma.
“Kentucky definitely leads the way in the number of bookmobiles nationwide,” Swendrowski said.
There are several reasons for that, including a history of efforts to get books to people in the farthest corners of the state, where libraries once were scarce and literacy needed all the help it could get.
In 1887, a literary club in Louisville started a project to send crates of books to rural areas with no libraries, which people sent back after they’d read them, according to the Kentucky Encyclopedia.
During the Depression on the 1930s, women delivered books by horse to areas of Kentucky that would have been relatively isolated in those days.
The federal Works Progress Administration backed the Pack Horse Library program in Eastern Kentucky.
The program helped lay the groundwork for efforts to put vehicles into service.
The first bookmobiles in the state were an ambulance, a hearse, a Jeep and some panel trucks, according to the encyclopedia.
Supporters raised money to buy dozens of bookmobiles in 1954 and gave them to the state, the encyclopedia said.
Nearly every Kentucky county ultimately set up bookmobile service, but the number later dropped because of funding cutbacks.
The state once provided bookmobiles to counties, but stopped in 2008, said Terry Manuel, commissioner of the state Department for Libraries and Archives.
Some counties switched to smaller, less expensive vans to deliver books to places such as nursing homes, though the number of counties with traditional bookmobile service has remained fairly constant in recent years, Manuel said.
“Libraries have stepped up and bought their own bookmobiles,” he said.
Manuel said he thought every county has either a bookmobile or a van delivery service.
Another reason so many counties have continued traditional bookmobile programs is that they see a continued need for the service, even in a digital age.
Many rural places in the state do not have good internet service, and some residents can’t afford the service when it is available.
Health problems keep people homebound. Many people don’t have a car to get to public library 20 miles away, and there is little public transportation in much of the state. Work schedules don’t match library hours.
Kendziorski said one man who gets books from the McCreary County bookmobile has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gerhig’s disease. He can no longer speak, but writes notes and she pulls western novels for him.
At another stop, the father works out of town and the mother doesn’t drive, so it would be hard for their children to get to the library.
“For a lot of people, the bookmobile is their library,” Kenziorski said. “For some it’s the only access they have to books.”
The last bookmobile the state provided to McCreary County was in 2002, said Kay Morrow, director of the McCreary County library.
The county is among the bottom 10 of more than 3,100 nationally in an index of economic measures such as poverty rate and per capita market income, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Most land in the county is owned by the federal government, which erodes the local tax base. It’s an understatement to say money is tight for local services.
But taxpayers have supported the library, and when the last bookmobile the state provided started showing its age, there was no consideration of joining the list of counties without a bookmobile, Morrow said.
“I felt the need was still there,” Morrow said.
The library bought a 2017 Ford Transit cargo van and had it modified to carry books at a total cost of $59,000.
The county’s old bookmobile was like a bread truck, with wooden shelves.
Kendziorski hit a bump with it once and hundreds of books fell out into the floor, and she had become afraid to turn it off at stops for fear it wouldn’t start.
The new one is outfitted with metal shelves tilted up at the front to keep the books secure and a backup camera that comes in handy in tight spaces.
It can carry about 1,000 books.
Kendziorski has other duties with the library, but four days a week, she travels the the county’s hilly, winding roads to take the library to residents.
She has regular routes, returning to patrons once every three weeks except in the summer, when the library shortens the rotation to two weeks.
That helps keep kids reading while school is out, countering the “summer slide” in reading skills.
The bookmobile does not stop at every house, but rather where people have requested service. Residents can contact the library to be added to the route.
Kendziorski asks people if a parcel-delivery truck can get to their house. If so, she can get in with the bookmobile, which is about 16 feet long.
She’s only gotten stuck in the mud one time in seven years, while backing out of a house.
Kendziorski has been operating the bookmobile long enough to know which books to put on the shelves — everything from young adult books, fiction and romance novels to westerns and lots of books for very young readers.
She recommends books she thinks patrons will like, based on their favorites.
Kids like to pick their own, though.
“They like to look at them and touch them and see what appeals to them,” she said.
Peggy Rector drove the bookmobile in McCreary County for more than 34 years before she retired in 2010.
Half the roads in the county were unpaved when she started, Rector said.
The bookmobile broke down several times, but somebody always stopped to help her, she said.
Kendziorski had nine stops scheduled after school on Nov. 21.
The first was at Studio 92 Hair Salon in Pine Knot, operated by Hazel Gilreath, where Kendziorski delivered a bag of 25 books for Gilreath and her 9-year-old son Aaron.
Gilreath said that between work and school activities, it’s hard to set aside time to go to the library in downtown Whitley City.
“It’s a great service,” Gilreath said of the bookmobile. “I love to read but I don’t have time to go to the library.”
Getting books delivered has helped Aaron academically, Gilreath said.
At the second stop, Kendziorski parked the bookmobile just off a narrow paved road at the top of a long gravel drive.
Tommie Burchfield walked from her house in the woods down the hill, where there wasn’t room to turn the cargo van.
Kendziorski petted Burchfield’s dog, a tiny Chihuahua-poodle mix named Tinkertoy, who got on the van while Burchfield browsed for books and talked with Kendziorski about Thanksgiving.
“You do get attached to a lot of customers,” Kendziorski said. “I think if you talked to a lot of bookmobile people, they’d say my kids, my people.”
At the third stop, a quiet 8th-grader named Karen Spradlin who is an avid reader boarded the bookmobile.
Kendziorski had already picked out two books from a series Karen had been reading, as well as some others Kendziorski thought she might like in the young adult supernatural genre.
“I’ll take’m all,” Karen said with a smile.
She got eight books altogether. She’ll have them all read before the bookmobile returns, Kendziorski said.
At one stop, four adults and half a dozen kids spilled out of two or three mobile homes to pick out books.
All told, the route covered 2 1/2 hours, 44 miles and nearly 20 readers.
Morrow thinks bookmobiles will remain a relevant, valuable service in McCreary and many other counties for years to come.
She can foresee adding an internet hotspot to the bookmobile to serve people who don’t have or can’t afford service.
“We’ll evolve,” she said.