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
(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.
Blunt accompanies the Mobile Library to Awassa, where:
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:
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:
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 . . . .