Yes, the economy is tanking, but library use is climbing. The American Library Association says patrons nationwide are checking out more books and movies and using computers and reference materials for job searches. And in many of Kentucky’s rural areas, the demand for library services extends far beyond the stacks, prompting WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer to hit the back roads.
Jim Tucker is talking me for a ride. He’s a librarian and the driver for the Casey County Library’s bookmobile. Today we’re crisscrossing the hills of Central Kentucky to visit homes and schools.
“And this is our first stop,” he says and honks his horn as we reach the top of a hill.
“Where are we?” I ask.
“We are on the top of South Fork Ridge at the home of Michael Byrd and his mother,” he says.
Michael Byrd, a stout man with a beard, steps into this book-lined van with an armload of some very thick books.
“Good morning,” Tucker says to him.
“Good morning y’all,” says Byrd. “How’re you all today?”
“Fine,” Tucker says. “And I have some books you might want to look through.”
Byrd reads about 10 books a week and cares of his 93-year-old mother round the clock. Like many people on Tucker’s routes, he doesn’t get to the county seat of Liberty often.
“Be careful going home in the snow,” Tucker tells Byrd as he steps off the bookmobiles.
“I will,” Byrd says.
There are many people like Byrd along the roughly one-thousand miles Tucker travels each month. There are also Amish communities, families who home school their children, and schools. In a year’s time, Tucker makes about 500 unique stops to serve more than 4,000 patrons.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis has prompted the state to cut funding to local libraries by nearly 15 percent and eliminate the grant program that once helped purchase new vehicles.
Casey County Library director Jan Banks says librarians throughout the state are feeling the pinch.
“Most libraries that I know will squeeze a penny ‘til it squeals” Banks says. “But we’ve got to have those pennies to squeeze.”
Banks says she saves money by putting off the purchase of materials and computers. But she wouldn’t dream of cutting the bookmobile program.
“It would be kind of a cruel thing to do — I don’t know whether cruel’s exactly the word — but it’s a program that helps people that really need assistance,” she says. “It gives them someone that comes to their house when they might not see anybody for a long time.”
Kentucky has 85 bookmobiles, more than any other state, and a deep devotion to them. It’s tied to a rich history and a project to boost literacy headed by Mary Bingham, of the family that owned Louisville’s prominent media properties. In 1954, the project presented the governor with 84 vehicles.
Today, many of the nation’s 900 bookmobiles, including some in Kentucky, are outfitted with computers. Some are designed for specific use by the elderly or — like the bookmobile at the Kenton County Public Library in Covington — to serve young children at day care centers.
Wayne Onkst once worked on the bookmobile there. Today, he’s the commissioner of Kentucky’s Department for Libraries and Archives. He says bookmobiles are more efficient then opening up new branches, and they do more than help people read.
“In many rural counties, many of the residents are so isolated, and the bookmobile is a lifeline,” Onkst says.
But keeping bookmobile programs alive could become a problem. As the state reduced funding, some libraries — like those in Casey and Kenton counties — began supporting their bookmobiles through sponsorships from businesses.
But that kind of support might not last in this economic crisis, and it has some librarians, like Jan Banks, wondering how some of Kentucky’s bookmobiles will stay on the road.