Time-Traveling Librarians from Outer Spa... from Texas

When I first heard of the Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library, a new Houston-based bookmobile venture, I felt myself get a bit unstuck in time. For one thing, I usually see “traveling library” used to describe the library boxes that were shipped as part of early extension efforts that were especially popular in the 1890s. And the photos used to promote it so far, like this one of the first bookmobile in Texas, are decidedly and delightfully old school.

At the same time, the BPTL is something decidedly (and delightfully) new. Its founders, Kelly Allen and Chris Grawl, plan to crowdfund the purchase of a decommissioned bookmobile and turn it into something pretty amazing: a traveling library that operates on a rent-barter-donate basis and also hires itself out to local libraries and other institutions for events and programs.

It turns out that this temporal confusion isn’t an accident. Most obviously, the project takes its name from the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, a character who himself becomes “unstuck in time.” And like awesome librarian Doctors Who—with time all great big, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, and stuff—BPTL founders aim to have their library “leap through time and space to connect the very best elements of bookmobiles with current needs.” They also firmly believe, as time-traveling librarians must and as they told me in a recent interview, that “books, movies, and music…unstick us in time.” (For a comic book that imagines librarians as time- and space-traveling superheroes, not unlike Chris and Kelly, see Supreme Librarians in Metaspace!)

Indeed, rather like SparkTruck the Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library combines the greatest hits of the 1890s, the 1950s, and today. The BPTL will take what its founders call the “magic” of the bookmobile—“a rolling, roaming library that facilitates serendipitous discoveries in many different locations”—and put it to work in our own moment.

That means collaborating with the food trucks that increasingly roam Houston’s streets. (Here’s a great post by Chris from a while back about libraries and food trucks.) And it means helping librarians deal with shrinking budgets and a fragmented, twenty-first-century audience. One of the BPTL’s goals, for example, is to collaborate with libraries (many of which lack the resources for their own outreach services) to broaden their existing patron base, through library card drives and other projects. “By bringing the library to the community instead of waiting for the community to come to the library,” Chris and Kelly explain, the BPTL plans to enhance and expand the ethos of sharing on which libraries are based.

To make those plans a reality, the Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library is looking for funding. It is, as the tagline puts it, “Your Bookmobile,” after all.

This, too, is part of their time-traveling amazingness. Chris and Kelly note that where traditional library bookmobiles are branded with location or library names, the BPTL plans to travel time and space, popping up where needed or wanted. “As an organization that relies on donations and crowdfunding,” they told me, “we are also literally owned by anyone who contributes, spreads the word, and visits us.”

So here I am, spreading the word! Surely that earns me deputy time-traveling librarian status, right? What can you do to join me as we travel time and space, or at least Texas, promoting libraries and sharing books?

—Derek Attig, bookmobility.org