Library on Wheels: Q&A With a Book Biking Librarian

Did you celebrate Book Bike Week (August 2 – 6, 2021)? The weeklong celebration featured book bikes at libraries across the world and showcased the work of librarians pedaling books around town.

Photograph of the book bike at the local pool.
The best way to reach kids in Athena on a hot summer day? The local pool.

From a book bike story time in the Netherlands to the Loan Ranger from Scottsdale Public Library in Arizona, book bikes have proven to be an accessible and safe library outreach tool during the pandemic.

Book bikes can spark a conversation in your community (who doesn’t want to see a librarian biking with hundreds of books in tow?) and offer an alternative to coming to the library in person.

Athena Public Library in Oregon, recipients of ALA’s Libraries Transforming Communities: Focus on Small and Rural Libraries grant, used grant dollars to purchase their own book bike.

“Almost everyone thinks the book bike is an ice cream bike the first time they see it!” said Kristin Williams, director of Athena Public Library. “The first day the bike was out and about, several kids ran to their curbs in excitement. They were still excited when they learned it was books instead of ice cream, but it’s pretty hard to compete with ice cream on a hot summer day.”

Kristin Williams shares how Athena’s new book bike is bringing the small community of 1,200 together.

Tell me about your library and the Athena community.

Athena Public Library is an independent city library in eastern Oregon, but we receive some of our funding from the Umatilla County Special Library District. This means we serve the small town of Athena and we are also a part of serving the entire county.

Athena was primarily a farming community but now many of our citizens drive 30 miles in either direction for employment in Walla Walla, Washington, or Pendleton, Oregon. We have a thriving Main Street Association that works hard to support the few businesses remaining in town.

Kids go to elementary and high school here in Athena but are bussed 10 miles across the highway for middle school. In the summer the library and the city pool are the main sources of activity for kids.

Why did you feel a book bike was important to Athena?

Like many libraries, we were closed to the public off and on for much of 2020. During that time, we worked to continue service at some level, including delivering books directly to homes.

Deliveries were well received and appreciated. Most deliveries were done on foot (Athena isn’t a large town) or using the library director’s car. This was a fine system, but people didn’t see the car driving around town and associate it with the library. We wanted people to know that we were delivering and to have a concrete way to recognize the services we were providing in town.

We are a small-town library with a small budget, and purchasing and staffing a bookmobile is outside of what we can do. A book bike seemed like an excellent entry for mobile library services.

Photograph of the book bike at the Farmers Market
Athena's book bike is most successful when brought to local community gatherings such as the farmers market.

For those who might not know, can you explain how your book bike works?

This is the first summer we’ve had the book bike so some things are in flux.

We adjusted our library hours slightly to close an hour earlier each day so the book bike can go out during that hour. It works well because that hour is when the community pool open swim time ends and family swim time begins. Many days we park the bike at the pool and take advantage of the traffic there for checkouts. We also take the bike to the weekly Tuesday Market.

So far, it seems like the bike is most successful when we take it somewhere that people are already gathering, rather than just randomly riding around town. We also have a few morning hours where we can deliver specific requests directly to people’s homes. Often for those deliveries, we just leave bags of books on porches or front steps. This seems very welcomed by people who have difficulty getting to the library during open hours.

When we stock the book bike, we try to consider the likely audience. Tuesday Market tends to be more adults so I usually stock adult fiction, particularly new releases. I also get good circulation of cookbooks and gardening books. When I take the bike to the pool the audience tends to be younger, so I bring more middle-grade books and picture books.

How do you see your new book bike positively impacting your community?

We really hope the book bike will help us better serve people who can’t get to the library and allow us to participate more in community events. We hope the bike will help provide a physical presence for the library outside of the library walls.

We also hope the bike helps us explore other new ways of meeting community needs. We are excited to try new things and the bike helps us start that conversation.

What advice do you have for libraries looking to purchase their own book bike?

Think about how you are going to store it. We didn’t realize that the bike doesn’t fit through our doors, even our wheelchair-accessible door! We had a plan for where we would store it when it’s not out and about and during the winter months but that plan no longer works. Currently, we’re keeping the bike at an employee’s home, but soon we will build a small shed at the back of the library. Truthfully, the extra storage space will be welcome, but this does create an additional expense that we weren’t expecting.

Also, consider ways to tie the bike to existing programs. We’ve had the bike at Storytime in the Park and other activities that we were already doing, and it’s helped get the word out about the bike’s purpose. A teacher who lives in town is looking into purchasing an ice cream bike that she’ll ride around next summer — we’re hoping we can collaborate with her in some way!

What is the future of your book bike? Any fun programs planned?

Right now, we’re working on plans for how the book bike will be best used during fall and spring. We hope to ride it to schools and bus stops as soon as school starts up again at the end of the month. We’re also creating contingency plans for possible future COVID-related shutdowns. We hope that won’t happen, but we’ll be ready if it does!