High Costs, Declining Benefits Leave More Minnesota Bookmobiles in Rear View Mirror

Google map shows St. Paul bookmobile makes regular stops close to city libraries

ST. PAUL, MN--Bookmobiles date back to the days of the Model T, a nostalgic memory like the neighborhood ice cream wagon for many Minnesotans.  In an era of the Kindle, branch libraries, and tight budgets, however, the end of the road has come in many communities for an iconic service that some view as a costly throwback in time and technology.

“I remember the bookmobile from when I was a kid and I wasn’t aware it was still around,” Teresa Boardman recently blogged on the Twin Cities Daily Planet. “There has been a bookmobile in St. Paul since 1916, but the one they use now is the 2005 model so it is no longer pulled by horses, which is kind of a shame but we have to keep up with the times.”

The number of bookmobiles statewide has declined from a peak of 35 in 1975 to 12 today, according to the Minnesota Department of Education, but St. Paul taxpayers still spend $292,000 a year to keep the bookmobile on the go assisting residents that face barriers in using the city’s 13 libraries.  "It's one of the cheapest ways to serve," said Alice Neve of the St. Paul Public Library. “It’s not at risk for loss.”

With 138,000 visitors in 2009, St. Paul’s state-of-the-art unit features a microwave, refrigerator, air-ride seats, skylights, under-the-desk heaters, a computerized leveling system and a pilot internet access program.  A review of the schedule, however, indicates officials might consider adding GPS to the bookmobile’s accessories.

FFM plotted the St. Paul bookmobile’s 39 regularly scheduled stops for summer, 2010 against the city’s 13 libraries on a Google map Although city guidelines state that bookmobile stops are generally to be at least a mile away from a regular library, the results show nearly one-third of the bookmobile’s stops (11 of 39) are less than one mile from a city library.  One of the closest stops comes at an independent living community just two-tenths of a mile from the West Seventh Branch Library. (See attached Google Earth photo.)  Taken as a whole, the majority of the bookmobile’s regularly scheduled stops (35 of 39) are within two miles or less of a city library.

Library officials appeared unaware that the vehicle designed to bring the library to city residents makes so many stops so close to city libraries. “The bookmobile does not go to stops within one mile of a fixed library building,” Neve told FFM.

Several of Minnesota’s remaining bookmobiles are operated by county consortiums, serving rural residents without local library services. The state’s busiest bookmobile by circulation in Rochester loaned out some 148,000 items in 2009, also serving three rural cities.  Even with a $300,000 annual budget that includes a $50,000 (with benefits) driver, library officials insist the Rochester bookmobile saves taxpayer funds by eliminating the need for branch libraries.

“It is more cost effective for us to provide a flexible bookmobile service,” said Kim Edson, head of reader services for the Rochester Library.” It’s not the cost of the branch building so much, as the cost of the staff to keep it going.”

After 19 years of operation, Hennepin County recently pulled its last mobile library off the road. Not just for the $150,000 in annual budget savings. Library officials concluded the Children’s Readmobile was no longer an effective vehicle for fulfilling its mission of reaching underserved populations and increasing literacy skills.

“This decision was not an easy one, but was made in response to the challenging economic environment we are all facing,” according to the Hennepin County Library website.

Yet by maximizing online tools and other options, the county library staff expects to both save money and be more successful in connecting with younger readers.  “Resources like these will continue to accomplish the Readmobile’s early literacy goals and will reach more children in a more cost-effective way,” the library’s website states.

The rest of Hennepin County’s Bookmobile fleet was sidelined several years earlier, due to high maintenance costs and duplication of services with 41 libraries countywide.

“It's never easy or fun to cancel programs that are intended to serve kids and families, but Hennepin County made the right choice ending the Bookmobile program,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson. “The costs were high and the benefits were minimal, as most Bookmobile users had easy access to a nearby Hennepin County Library.”

Hennepin County’s retired bookmobiles remain parked in a garage.  As a goodwill gesture, St. Paul sent its previously owned bookmobile to its sister city in Manzanillo, Mexico.  The vehicle is not being used, according to Alice Neve, because the Manzanillo city government can’t fund it.

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Tips, comments or suggestions? Contact Tom Steward, FFM Investigative Director. 952-451-3684.

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