Mobile Libraries: Culture on the Go

Today’s post is written by Joseph Smith, who volunteers at the National Archives at College Park.  National Bookmobile Day is April 22, part of National Library Week (April 19-25). 

A library is a place that stores information, a place where people from all walks of life have the opportunity to obtain textual and audiovisual material for education, entertainment, and enlightenment.  But sometimes a patron is unable to access a library due to limitations of location or distance. What better solution to this problem than to implement a mobile library?

Mobile libraries can be traced as far back as 1850’s England with a horse-drawn “Perambulating Library.” A similar mode of transporting reading material was active in Washington County, Maryland, in 1905, the first of its kind in the United States.  In fact, the County library’s mobile library services are still active to this day!  

Clip from “The Days the Books Went Blank” (306-6536). See the full film here. 

Motorized versions of mobile libraries are known as “bookmobiles.” In the United States today, bookmobiles serve a range of clientele in schools and retirement homes, hospitals and prisons.  Modes of transporting information materials throughout the world include boats, bicycles, horses, burros, elephants, and even hot air balloons. Mobile libraries can be very adaptable, since their collections can be tweaked to fit the needs of their particular demographic. While their range of activity is often in rural and isolated regions, they are also active in urban areas where transportation to physical libraries may be difficult for residents.  

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Mobile libraries have been active on the battlefield.  There is indeed evidence that during World War I, books were delivered to troops via automobile. 

American Library Association – Dispatch – Rolling library in trailer. Mallet’s Reserve American boys with French Army Transport Service ( 165-WW-26C-11)

During World War II, jeeps and trucks were converted into bookmobiles that distributed materials in the war zones.

Libraries, Mobile — Third Army La. Maneuvers, 1943. Cab. 5-LofS- Libraries. (111-SC-180622)

During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided support for bookmobile programs, as well as the WPA’s own Pack Horse Library Initiative that provided rural Kentuckians with reading material.

Hindman, Knott County, Kentucky. Carriers, mostly women, travel the remote sections of the state by horse and mule. They meet once a week at their library headquarters where saddle-bags are replenished with books for eager mountain folk. These carriers are paid a small salary by the Works Project Administration (WPA) in Kentucky (69-N-12782-C)
Librarian and soldiers with WPA bookmobile at Fort Belvoir, Virginia (69-MP-24463)

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the U.S. government used bookmobiles to promote a concept known as “cultural diplomacy.” As defined by the U.S. State Department, cultural diplomacy is not only a subfacet of public diplomacy, but “the linchpin” of it as well, claiming that a nation presents its image effectively via its culture.

The American government was taking a greater role in global affairs following the end of World War II, as the Marshall Plan and the Smith-Mundt Act in 1948 clearly demonstrate. Broadly speaking, the use of cultural diplomacy as a tool of U.S. foreign policy was pushed by a fight against Soviet influence worldwide.  Matt Armstrong implicitly notes that the Smith-Mundt Act was passed as a kind of heightening of counter-communist activity, since such propaganda expanded when the Marshall Plan, also called the European Recovery Program (ERP), was announced.

Cultural diplomacy fell under the oversight of the United States Information Service (USIS), the “cultural arm” of the now non-existent United States Information Agency (USIA).  The USIA was initially established in 1953 as a means for the U.S. government to uphold American foreign policy through public diplomacy. Eventually emerging from the defunct Office of War Information (OWI), the USIS already had a number of Information Centers in areas under American control whose officials “were… increasingly aware of the value of propaganda and psychological warfare.”  The need for distributing such information led to the passing of the Smith-Mundt Act in 1948.

An Information Center’s library was its principal hub.  Under USIA authority, the reading material provided by the USIS had to “be a balanced reflection of American thought and life.”  An Information Center served not only as a source for accessing reading material, music, and films, but also as a place that provided opportunities for education and cultural enrichment in the form of exhibits, classes, lectures, and even concerts.

Apart from its aims to extend cultural diplomacy, the activities in these centers were also an attempt to dispel rumors from foreign nations and accusations from Soviet authorities that the United States was purely industrial, with no inclination toward culture.

The bookmobile extended an Information Center’s cultural wares beyond its physical location. Based on the textual and photographic evidence available, bookmobile activity in Germany and Austria was particularly prevalent.  A total of twenty-two of these motorized mobile libraries were active in rural Germany by 1957. At least within Germany, these bookmobiles also had music, records, and sometimes films with a projector that were viewed in whichever populated places the bookmobile found itself in.

US government-sponsored bookmobiles were also on the move in nearby Austria, and further away in Panama and Thailand. A mobile library included the so-called “boatmobile” in Thailand.

One non-USIA bookmobile reached foreign patrons in an especially unique way. During the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, in which various examples of American technological and cultural innovation were  on display, a bookmobile from Delmar, New York, was included for viewing.

Delmar Public Library Bookmobile at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959         (306-HVM-59-20555)

The bookmobile’s reading materials proved to be all too appealing for the Soviet attendees, who ended up taking a majority of them.  The popularity of the bookmobile and the consequent snatching up of its contents resulted in the bookmobile exhibit being closed off to the public, as new books had to be shipped in for replacement.

For more information about mobile libraries and photographs in the holdings of the National Archives, consult the Records of the United States Information Agency, the Works Projects Administration, the Bureau of Public Roads, and the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture.


Many thanks to Judy Luis-Watson, and much appreciation to volunteers Cynthia Peterman and Diana Todd whose research and scanned items contributed to this article. 


Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy — U.S. Department of State. Cultural Diplomacy — The Linchpin of Public Diplomacy. Sept. 2005. Report.pdf. Accessed 8 Sept. 2019. 

“The Amerika-Haus Bookmobile Program.” Bookmobiles: A History. 17 April 2013. Accessed 8 Sept. 2019.

Armstrong, Matt. “A Brief History of the Smith-Mundt Act and Why Changing It Matters.”, 23 Feb. 2012.  Accessed 8 Sept. 2019.

“Biblioburro: The amazing donkey libraries of Colombia.” BBC, 11 April 2018.

“Bookmobile.” Washington County Free Library. N.d.  Accessed 22 June. 2019. 

“The Strange Case of the Bookmobile That Went to Moscow.” Bookmobiles: A History. 9 March 2013. 

Bu, Liping. “Educational Exchange and Cultural Diplomacy in the Cold War.” Journal of American Studies 33.3 (1999): 393-415. JSTOR. 

“Contemporary Libraries: 1930s.” History of Libraries. Eduscapes, n.d. Accessed 8 Sept. 2019. 

Elton, Cassandra. “Breaking Down Invisible Barriers:

Using Bookmobiles to Facilitate Library Outreach in Urban and Suburban Communities.” University of Iowa. N.d., PowerPoint. Accessed 8 Sept. 2019. 

Garber, Cecily. “American Bookmobiles; Connections and Conflict — An Interview with Derek Attig.” The Ultimate History Project, n.d. Accessed 8 Sept. 2019. 

McGraw, Eliza. “Horse-Riding Librarians Were the Great Depression’s Bookmobiles.” Smithsonian Institution, 21 June 2017. 

McIllece, Emily, Rebecca Hueske, and Christine Walsh. “Bookmobiles: Communities on the Move.” Nebraska Libraries, 4.2 (May 2016): 14-16.

Moore, Jennifer, Aaron Elkins, and Helen Boelens. “Libraries on the Move: By Land, by Sea, and by Air.” International Association of School Librarianship. Selected Papers from the …Annual Conference (2017): 202-210. ProQuest, 

Novak, Matt. “The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia.” Gizmodo, 24 July 2014.

Sussman, Jody. “United States Information Service Libraries.” Occasional Papers (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Graduate School of Library Science) 111 (Dec. 1973): 1-24. 

“USIA Film Describing Its Libraries and Cultural Centers Abroad.” Critical Past, 1954. Accessed 8 Sept. 2019. 

“USIS Programs Include Musical Porgy and Bess and Orchestra, Sprinter Jesse Owens, Writer William Faulkner, and a Trade Show.” Critical Past, 1956. Accessed 8 Sept. 2019. 

“Warrington’s Libraries.” Warrington History Society, 18 Sept. 2016, Accessed 8 September 2019.

4 thoughts on “Mobile Libraries: Culture on the Go

  1. Great article! You mention one alternative mode of information transport being hot air balloons, can you share any more details about that?

    1. Thank you, Michelle. An article used in the research for this post discussed the possibility of using balloons to assist in providing Internet access for digital mobile libraries (patrons having access to digital materials and the like), not transporting physical materials. These “balloons,” were more like a weather balloon and not like a stereotypical “hot air balloon.”

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