Library bookmobile: Elkhart invented. And now reinvented.

When kids climb into the newest Elkhart Public Library bookmobile to get something to read this summer, they’re continuing a tradition that’s a century old.

It’s looked a lot different over the years. It’s traveled to places far and near. It’s met different community needs. 

Concord students enjoying Free Books to Feed Minds in the summer of 2022.
Elkhart Public Library’s book bus travels to schools and community events to share free books.

“When the bookmobile parks in a subdivision, it doesn’t take long for people to appear,” reporter Bil Harp wrote in The Elkhart Truth in 1981. “And when they enter the bus, there are greetings all around, more like old friends – which they are to (librarian Isabelle) Freeman – than just folks looking for a book to read.”

Today’s book bus isn’t like the special-order 1957 model. It doesn’t take special skills to drive like the Bluebird buses of the 1990s. And it certainly won’t remind anyone of the 1920s original. 

Elkhart, after all, always continues to perfect its inventions.

A gift of good books

At the dawn of the 20th century, Helen and Andrew “Hub” Beardsley became the first champions of a library for Elkhart, Ind. 

Hub Beardsley was a leader and innovator with Dr. Miles’ Medical Co., working his way through the ranks to become chairman of the board. Along with George Pratt of Elkhart Carriage and Harness Manufacturing Co., he traveled to New York in April 1901 to meet with steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. 

They already convinced city leaders to pledge a few thousand dollars each year, along with property along Second Street, to maintain a library. Carnegie gave $37,000 after hearing their pitch, and the Elkhart library opened two years later. 

Helen Beardsley, Hub’s wife, made significant contributions on social issues. She took the local lead on women’s suffrage and was the first president of Indiana’s League of Women Voters. She served as the first woman elected to the Elkhart School Board. And she was an active member of the local library board.

When the current downtown library opened in March 1963, made possible by the philanthropic work of Esther and Ross Martin, The Elkhart Truth dedicated pages to the library and its history. Helen Beardsley’s purchase of a special vehicle to bring library books to neighborhoods received special attention.

The original Elkhart Library bookmobile, donated by Helen Beardsley in the early 1920s.
The original Elkhart bookmobile in the 1920s. This photo is from Indiana Memory, a local history service available through EPL’s Digital Library.

“The local library was a pioneer in this service,” The Truth reported, “and the car, donated to the library by Mrs. A.H. Beardsley, was exhibited that year (1922) at a national library association meeting in Detroit. The trip to Detroit took two days.”

Custom built and rolling

Another article, on June 18, 1968, provided a thorough description of America’s first library bookmobile. 

“Extra books were carried in bushel baskets in the small space inside the ‘book auto,’” Mary Jane Mueller reported. “Shelves were stocked on the outside from this extra supply. This early ‘book auto’ was a panel truck that had been converted for use as a traveling library.”

The Beardsleys’ book auto needed a new chassis in 1928, but stayed in service through the decade. The Great Depression caused library leaders “to economiz(e) on several fronts. The bookmobile was sold for $75,” according to The Truth’s March 29, 1963, edition.

In the years following World War II, an anonymous donation revived the library bookmobile. For $1,750, the library invested in a specially built “traveling branch library, fitted with shelving and equipped with a substantial book stock, as well as pamphlets, pictures, magazines and phonograph records,” according to a May 25, 1948, article in The Truth. 

Librarian Harriet Carter told the newspaper bookmobiles “have proven the most efficient way to take books to individuals and groups not otherwise served by public libraries. … Elkhart will be the only library in the state of less than county size giving bookmobile service.”

L&L Body Shop of Mishawaka built the vehicle on a 1-ton truck chassis. ”The body will be of aluminum braced with steel and insulated with fibre glass,” The Truth reported. “Plywood panels will be used on the side walls and the flooring will be overlaid with battleship linoleum. … 

“Because there are no bookmobile manufacturers, Miss Carter explained, they are custom built according to each library’s specifications.”

The road to progress

A newer model replaced the library bookmobile in the late 1950s. The price tag grew to $9,500. By this time, the service area extended across northern Elkhart County. A complete round of stops happened every two weeks.

“Back when she first started, in 1958, a workday took Mrs. (Isabelle) Freeman to the far reaches of the county to York and Middlebury townships,” reporter Bil Harp wrote on Dec. 28, 1981. “At that time there was no manufacturing in that area, mostly just a lot of farmland, but the people would flock to the bookmobile. …”

Elkhart Public Library upgraded again in 1968. The 35-long bus featured seat belts, power steering, and shelf space for 3,500 books. 

Students waiting for the bookmobile in 1968.
A feature photo published in The Elkhart Truth on June 18, 1968.

“If you have noticed the long, tan and cream colored library on wheels roaming the streets of Elkhart during the last two weeks, you are noting another step in the progress and development of the Elkhart Public Library system,” Mueller reported in 1968.

People borrowed nearly 50,000 books from the library bookmobile every year. 

‘That’s a real job’

Elected leaders contracted with the library in the early 1970s for bookmobile service in unincorporated areas of Concord Township. The newspaper collected surveys to help the library set locations for 30- to 90-minute stops.

Bookmobile service extended to Concord Township in the 1970s.
In the 1970s, Elkhart’s bookmobile brought service to all of Concord Township, including the County Home in Dunlap.

By the early 1980s, the bookmobile carried magazines and framed art prints. The offerings grew even more in the 1990s.

“We have CDs, video tapes, cassette tapes, magazines, electronic games and framed prints,” driver Caroll Sims told The Truth in December 1995.  “We rotate everything in the bookmobile with library stock every three to four months. That’s a real job. At the end of the day your kneecaps will let you know it, too.”

By this time, at least one Elkhart company had entered the bookmobile business of making the boxes to fit truck chassis. 

Bookmobile acquired by Better World Books
Better World Books acquired one of the former Elkhart Public Library bookmobiles in 2015.

Like the Great Depression, though, another economic downturn and changes in local government funding put an end to the local bookmobile. Elkhart Public Library sold both of its Bluebird buses by 2015. Better World Books purchased one, and it remains in service for book giveaway events. 

On the road again

Free Books to Feed Minds has brought about the latest addition to the local library bookmobile history. Developed during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to connect families with physical reading materials, the Free Books campaign has put quality books into the hands of more than 7,500 children in Elkhart.

To get those books on the road, EPL’s Audience Development Department converted its delivery van into a “book bus.” Cargo includes bean bag chairs, hanging baskets, and lots of Scholastic titles in English and Spanish. 

The book bus visits apartment complexes, local schools, festivals and block parties, and more. To discuss scheduling, contact Audience Development at 574-294-2619.

Crossroads United Way and the Friends of Elkhart Public Library contributed to the Free Books initiative in 2020. The Community Foundation of Elkhart County and Elkhart Rotary Club previously supported the effort.

Harp wrote in 1981, “Books are … a way of life, able to open the door to new worlds, new adventures. Nothing matches the potential of books.”

“(The bookmobile) acquaints children with books,” Freeman said in that same article. “Many of the kids won’t go on to college, but the main thing is to help them know what to do with the rest of their life.”