Donkey Bookmobiles

Anybody else remember bookmobiles?

When I was a child, back there in the last millennium, I lived in a modest California Central Valley town of about 10,000 people. Though we had a perfectly fine public library just off downtown, a bookmobile daily crawled through the streets delivering books to those who were too old, sick, young, automobile-impaired, or Boo Radley-like to frequent the place. I was kind of a library rat then, and I remember being grateful, when laid up first with mononucleosis, and then with valley fever, that the books could come to me.

Some years on, still in the last millennium, I moved upstate to another California Central Valley town, this one somewhat bigger, one with not only a perfectly fine public library, but also a more brash and boastful library connected to a college. Though a bookmobile did not cruise the streets of the top town in the county, it did dutifully crawl into all the towns, villages, hamlets, forks in the road, wide spots, and wilderness areas tucked away in the flatlands, foothills, and mountains.

This piece will eventually get around to reporting on a perfectly charming story from the BBC about the use of donkeys to circulate books among the children of Ethiopia, but first I smell several hundred more words of introductory and digressive material . . . .

American bookmobiles of the last millennium were akin to ice-cream trucks, though somewhat larger, and carrying printed material, rather than sweets. The largest and more ornate of the bunch were actually shelved inside, allowing one to climb into the vehicle and browse, as if in a “real” library.So far as I know, in this state at least bookmobiles are today as rare as the California condor. In 1978 the state’s voters were bamboozled into approving, via initiative statute, Proposition 13, which was sold as a means to provide property tax relief to single-family homeowners, but was in truth designed to ensure that property taxes on immortal transnational corporations would never rise above 1978 levels. And they haven’t.As a result, over the past 30 years the governments of the state and counties of California have been slowly strangling to death. One of the first casualties of the deprivation of funds were the bookmobiles. Next came the libraries themselves. Many were closed; the rest remained open with drastically reduced hours and skeletal staffs. In the late 1990s people finally started worrying that all these shuttered libraries were contributing to the creation of a state populated by drooling knuckledraggers, and so some communities began working on securing alternative forms of funding. Down the mountain there in Chico, a college town fer chrissake, a place you think might value some book-learnin’, the public library only recently returned to serving the public seven days a week. And finally the bookmobile started coming back, though covering but a fraction of its former range.

The concept of mobile libraries was not born in “Every Man A King” New Deal America. I was actually able tonight to find this book by one of my favorite historians of revolutionary-era France, Robert Danton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, which details how clandestine book-pushers roamed the provinces of France covertly circulating state-prohibited books and pamphlets, thereby doing their part to birth “liberty, equality, fraternity.”

In oral cultures, individual human beings served as mobile libraries. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves writes of the ollaves of ancient Ireland, each of whom

had to be master of one hundred and fifty Oghams, or verbal ciphers, which allowed him to converse with his fellow-poets over the heads of unlearned bystanders; to be able to repeat at a moment’s notice any one of three hundred and fifty long traditional histories and romances, together with the incidental poems they contained, with appropriate harp accompaniment; to have memorized an immense number of other poems of different sorts; to be learned in philosophy; to be a doctor of civil law; to understand the history of modern, middle and ancient Irish with the derivations and changes of meaning of every word; to be skilled in music, augury, divination, medicine, mathematics, geography, universal history, astronomy, rhetoric and foreign languages; and to be able to extemporize poetry in fifty or more complicated metres.

(Graves theorizes that what made Shakespeare Shakespeare was that his Welsh tutor was one of the last remaining ollaves.)

Ray Bradbury, in his dystopia Fahrenheit 451, foresees a world in which, when books have been banned, renegades become human books, each person memorizing the contents of a particular book, from cover to cover, passing on this knowledge to a memorizing “newbie” before expiring.

And that’s enough of that.

According to this BBC reporter, Elizabeth Blunt, the alphabet of Amharic, a language of Ethiopia, is “fiendishly complicated.” I myself, ignorant of all languages, including most of them Englishes, cannot judge the truth of this.

Anyway, according to Blunt, Ethiopian children are today aided in practicing and perfecting their Amharic by the wares transported to their towns and villages by Ethiopia’s first Donkey Mobile Library.

The library is the vision of an Ethiopian expatriate, and is managed by one Mezrasha Kibret, who makes the eminently sensible observation that “[i]f we are interested in changing the world, then we have to read.”

In rural and provinicial Ethiopia donkey carts and horse-drawn buggies are standard forms of transportation. The Donkey Mobile Library consists of a brightly painted wooden cart, books, and three donkeys: two who draw the cart, and another, older donkey, who walks beside it.

[T]he project also tries to teach the children about respect for animals.Donkeys here are generally despised and often ill-treated, but these two working donkeys wear the colourful embroidered trappings usually reserved for riding horses.

Alongside them walks the project’s mascot–Queen Helena, the queen of all the donkeys.

She is an old lady now, but is decked out in a red silk saddle cloth, and a red and gold crown.

Blunt accompanies the Mobile Library to Awassa, where:

[t]he donkey cart moves off down the street, surrounded by a swarm of delighted children, and eventually turns into the gate of a local primary school.More excited children run out to meet it.

Like many state primary schools in Ethiopia, this one has no library of its own.

The staff say the children have made great strides in their learning and in their behaviour since getting regular access to books.

Most are from poor families; for them, even the modestly priced picture books published by EBCEF cost something like two days’ wages.

In the centre of Awassa, and in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, EBCEF also runs conventional children’s libraries, busy in the late afternoon with school children reading and drawing and doing their homework.

All the children are completely absorbed in what they are doing and treat the books with great care.

Blunt says the children seem most taken by the story of Silly Mammo, which, with a few changes here and there, could equally entrance any child anywhere in the world:

Mammo is a well-meaning young man, but very silly. When his mother finally finds him a job, he drops the coins he earns and loses them.”Next time, put your pay carefully in your pocket,” says his mother.

The following day the farmer, instead of money, pays him with milk, with predictable consequences.

“No, no, no,” says his mother, when she sees his dripping clothes.

“When he gives you something like that, you should carry it on your head,” she says.

But Mammo’s next wages come in the form of fresh butter wrapped in green leaves.

The children giggle delightedly at the drawing of the blazing sun, and the melting butter running down Mammo’s face.

I like stories like this one, about the Donkey Mobile Library. They remind me of George Orwell’s remarks in “Some Thoughts On The Common Toad.”Orwell, writing during probably the most fractious period of the last century, would occasionally, in the production of his weekly newspaper column “As I Please,” stray from dire and precise recountings of the world going to Hell, in favor of something more calming, more hopeful, generally connected with animals, with nature, with some small glimmer of something going right somewhere . . . at which time he would be roundly assailed by his readers for succumbing to “political quietism.”

At the end of “Some Thoughts On The Common Toad,” which defiantly celebrates the return of spring, Orwell writes this:

Is it wicked to take pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle? There is no doubt that many people think so. I know by experience that a favourable reference to ‘Nature’ in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters, and though the key-word in these letters is usually ‘sentimental’, two ideas seem to be mixed up in them. One is that any pleasure in the actual process of life encourages a sort of political quietism. People, so the thought runs, ought to be discontented, and it is our job to multiply our wants and not simply to increase our enjoyment of the things we have already. The other idea is that this is the age of machines and that to dislike the machine, or even to want to limit its domination, is backward-looking, reactionary and slightly ridiculous . . . .Certainly we ought to be discontented, we ought not simply to find out ways of making the best of a bad job, and yet if we kill all pleasure in the actual process of life, what sort of future are we preparing for ourselves? If a man cannot enjoy the return of spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia? What will he do with the leisure that the machine will give him? I have always suspected that if our economic and political problems are ever really solved, life will become simpler instead of more complex, and that the sort of pleasure one gets from finding the first primrose will loom larger than the sort of pleasure one gets from eating an ice to the tune of a Wurlitzer. I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and–to return to my first instance–toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.

At any rate, spring is here, even in London, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

The Donkey Mobile Library is a good thing, a positive thing, a hopeful thing. It makes me quietly happy, and I am going to hold on to that, as I close this piece, and prepare to click away, to return again to Hell . . . .

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1 Response to “Donkey Bookmobiles”


  1. 1 o. l. June 29, 2009 at 3:32 am

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