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


  1. Don’t spread the secret too widely, but there’s a surprising number of progressives hiding out in Houston, not just in Austin.

    I picture the bookmobile driving slowly through neighborhoods like an ice cream truck. What tune should the bookmobile play to attract readers? Paperback writer? Book of Love?

    1. Maybe they should just use a bell like the ice cream truck.  Probably the only way they’re going to get most people off their asses for a book.  Also, I really worry that something so localized and with such a necessarily small selection is going to have trouble competing with downloadable “e-books” from physical libraries.  Although come to think of it, using “e-book” and “physical library” in the same sentence doesn’t make much more sense.  For inducing warm-fuzzies in this particular reader, you can’t beat ink-and-paper books.  But since I’m trying not to accumulate more “stuff”, as well as for the sheer convenience of it, I’ve bought or borrowed perhaps 50 or 60 e-books in the last 12 months, vs. buying maybe 6 or 7 paper books and borrowing… none.  Maybe I just need to glue my Nook inside a big thick hardback book.  If nothing else there would be room for enough batteries to keep it running for a year at a time.  Dammit; now I want to go back and read “Diamond Age” again…

      1. I don’t think there would be a lot of competition between bookmobiles and library e-books, or at least, users won’t be forced to choose between the two. The kind of people who go to their local library regularly or download library ebooks from home might not care about this bookmobile with its smaller selection. I assume the bookmobile is aimed at people who have trouble getting to their nearest library, or don’t think much about their library. Almost a convenience service like ice cream trucks. Kids might be within walking distance of a place that sells ice cream, and it would probably be cheaper at the store, maybe a larger selection, but the ice cream truck rolls by and reminds you that you might be in the mood for it right now. They probably charge a little more and still manage to remain profitable.

        On the other hand, ice cream trucks probably don’t take orders for what to bring next week, but a bookmobile working with/for a local library could take requests from patrons and deliver the items later, essentially offering a much larger selection than what fits on the truck.

        1. Hi everyone.  Chris from the BPTL here.  First, I’d like to thank you all, particularly Derek and everyone affiliated with Library Boing Boing, for having such a positive response to our project.  In the last two days we’ve gotten about as many page views on our site as we previously had ever.  And we’ve raised $170 for our IndieGoGo campaign in the past day.  So thank you for that.

          The above two comments by Culturedropout and Deldzoeb have given me a lot to respond to, and I’d like to take the opportunity here to do so.

          First, Deldzoeb is right that we aren’t trying to compete with the eBook market, or with anyone really.  There was a certain Redditor that suffered this same confusion. We believe it is our role to complement other establishments (libraries, museums, coffee shops, food & mobile trucks) and cultures (food & fashion culture, art culture, festival culture).

          There also seems to be some confusion that our bookmobile only lends books, and that is precisely why I prefer to call it a traveling library and not a bookmobile.  Inferring that we’re just going to be roaming the streets (like an ice cream truck??) with a modest collection of books  misses the point of our project and the point of libraries in general.  I will refer you to our about page and to the link to the inventory on our catalog page.  Our LibraryThing page is misleading because right now it consists mostly of books, but that’s only because all of those books were already in LibraryThing’s database.  Our DVDs and VHSes and CDs and vinyl are going to take a bit more effort on our part.  

          Thirdly, and let’s go ahead and make it lastly, I’m not sure I follow Deldzoeb’s ice cream analogy.  Are you saying that it would be more costly for someone to stumble upon our traveling library than to drive to a bookstore, or a library?  Our venture is something of a hybrid between a used bookstore and a library, so I feel I must respond to both. In the bookstore case, that claim is absolutely false, even in the case of somewhere like Half-Price books.  In the case of libraries, it really depends on how responsible you are.  Our business plan is somewhat different than that of a public library.  Most public libraries will give you a card for free and wait to benefit off of your negligence (or just your tax dollars). We’re a little more up front about costs (annual membership plans), and we don’t have late fees.  You can return what you’ve borrowed anytime you want, or not at all.  If you don’t return it, you’ve already paid for it, but at most $5.

          Thanks for your time.  I hope this cleared some things up.  And don’t mess with (Houston, or Austin,) Texas.

          1. Hi Chris. I hadn’t clicked through the link to read exactly what you were doing. I was just using the ice cream truck analogy to show some positives about what could be done with a bookmobile — the convenience, the outreach aspect if it was tied to a local library system. I didn’t mean to imply that it would be more costly for someone to stumble upon your traveling library than to drive to a bookstore, or a library. I also didn’t mean to assume that your business model was the same as an ice cream truck. Sorry for the confusion.

            I was trying to pre-emptively cut-off the argument that traveling libraries are unnecessary or add no value to a standard brick & mortar library. Ice cream trucks presumably mark up their goods because of the convenience of their service (just like convenience stores do), and we can see there’s a market for them based on the fact that they remain in business. I assume there’s a similar audience of readers who would appreciate the convenience of traveling libraries, even if they already patronize their local brick & mortar library.

            Good luck to you!

      1.  Wrong again! The only books in Tejas that one is allowed to read are those that have been appropriately edited and amended by the School Book Committee. Gotta watch out for Commie agendas from Anti-muricans

  2. They found a skeleton in the driver’s seat with a note that read, “All hope is lost… 57 years and still waiting for my first customer… what’ll happen to all… these……… bibles?”

  3. I’ve only used bookmobiles once or twice, but I’ve been lucky to have a parent who would happily fit in a trip to the local library if at all possible, or she’d at least drop me at the train station so I could go myself or with my brothers. 

  4. This is the stuff the world needs. It’d be amazing to get these time travelers to join the @sxswLAM gang in Austin this year to rile up the internet crowds with mobile library wonders. Let’s connect on http://www.sxswlam.info for more fun possibilities to explore.

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