Mary Lemist Titcomb is credited with developing and implementing one of the country’s first bookmobiles.
Mary, an avid reader, stumbled upon library work after reading about it in a church bulletin. Today if one is interested in librarianship, they ideally need multiple degrees. Back in the late 1800s, to become a librarian one had to train as an apprentice. Mary trained at the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts. She then worked as a librarian in Rutland, Vermont and was the secretary of the state’s first library commission.
On February 2, 1901, Mary moved to Hagerstown, Maryland where she accepted the librarian position at Washington County Free Library. She easily took the reins at the library, which was the second working county library in the United States. The library had deposit stations outside the town which allowed access to library materials. Within two years there were 22 of these stations. Mary’s goal was to get books to more people. The idea took off. The next five years saw the number grow to 66 deposit stations. Not only could a patron check out books at these stations, but they could request and pick up new material. “The functions of a library are manifold,” Mary once said about a library’s purpose, “but still may all be summed up in one word – service.”
While Washington County saw an increase in library patrons through these deposit stations, Mary realized that the system failed to reach many of the rural residents. So, in April 1905, she loaded up a wagon full of books and brought them to the patrons. Washington County Free Library became one of the country’s first organized bookmobiles or, in this case, a ‘bookwagon.’
The ‘bookwagon’ was a Concord wagon. It was described as a “cross between a grocer’s delivery wagon and the tin peddlers car of bygone New England days.” One farmer thought it resembled a hearse. Shelves lined the outside of the wagon and space inside could hold over 2,500 books. “No better method has ever been devised for reaching the dweller in the country,” Mary insisted. “The book goes to the man, not waiting for the man to come to the book.”
It was driven by Joshua Thomas, the library janitor and Civil War veteran. Since he was a county native, people knew who he was and were comfortable with him. Joshua, in turn, was comfortable driving the two-horse wagon through the countryside with its bumpy roads and lack of road signs. A recorded 31 trips were made in the first six months of operation with an average of 30 miles daily. For some of the longer routes, it would take him a day just to get to his destination. Mary informed him that the families and patrons should be allowed to take their time in selecting books and not feel rushed.
The wagon ran until August 25, 1910 when it was hit by bad luck – a train. Joshua was crossing some train tracks when a freight train collided and destroyed the wagon.
You might be wondering how a train could sneak up on a person. Trees obscured the tracks so Joshua could not see the train coming. The noise of the train could not be heard over the wagon’s own noisy sounds. Luckily, the horses broke free and ran away (they were caught several hundred yards away). Joshua was thrown from his spot and, except for a bruised back, escaped serious injury. The books, however, were scattered all around and some were destroyed or badly damaged.
After the accident, the library had to wait for an entire year before they had enough money for another bookmobile. The library board decided that a horse and wagon was an outdated mode of transportation and looked at getting something with a motor. In 1912, a motorized bookmobile was introduced.
Mary worked as a librarian for 31 years. Of her patrons, she once remarked that they were a “great army of men and women who use our public libraries to read because it gives them pleasure – because through books they are lifted out of all routine of every-day life, their imaginations are quickened and for the brief space that the book holds them in thrall the colors of life assume a brighter tint.” Mary passed away after a long illness on June 5, 1932. Her idea of bringing books to the people hit some rough spots with the Great Depression and World Wars. However, bookmobiles rebounded in the mid to late 20th Century. Many people look back on their childhood with nostalgic memories of their time spent in a bookmobile.
How much did the library charge its patrons to use this new ‘bookwagon’ system? It was free. It was a library after all!
“Library Book Van: Smashed in a Railroad Wreak – Mr. Thomas Escapes Serious Injury,” The Daily Mail (Hagerstown, MD.),August 25, 1910.
“MISS TITCOMB, LIBRARY HEAD, DIES AT HOME: Librarian And Originator Of Book Wagon Expires After Long Illness,” The Daily Mail (Hagerstown, MD.), June 6, 1932.
Nancy Smiler Levinson, “The History of the Book Wagon,” Library Journal vol. 116, no. 8 (May 5, 1991).
“Mary Lemist Titcomb,” Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.