In Western Maryland, the bookmobile delivers to readers who might otherwise have trouble getting their hands on a book

The good tomes roll for Allegany readers

Maryland journal

September 18, 2006|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

Cumberland -- It's a misty and miserable morning in Western Maryland - not exactly the kind of day that invites jaunts about town. Especially if you're an octogenarian. Especially if you don't drive.

Could be a problem if your book cupboard is bare and all you want to do is curl up with a nice, fat political screed or a religious history book.

But Cornelia Furlow, an 89-year-old, white-haired bibliophile, is not the least bit concerned. As expected, just a few minutes before 9 a.m., a boxy, colorful bookmobile bumps down her street and parks in the lot next to her low-slung brick house. Some minutes later, there's a rap at her door.

"I have books for you and a new schedule," Sherri Uhl, the bookmobile librarian, says brightly, bustling in with a plastic bag in each hand.

Uhl sets down the new stash (including Cults that Kill: Probing the Underworld of Occult Crime and Ann Coulter's latest, Godless: The Church of Liberalism ) takes a fresh list of 15 titles for next time and is on her way. Furlow waves from the doorway, as Uhl ducks back into her miniature library.

The bookmobile - that nostalgia-riddled icon, the egghead's version of the ice-cream truck - is alive and well in Allegany County. The truck makes about 40 stops every three weeks in this mostly rural county, bringing more than 3,000 volumes and CDs to bibliophiles of all persuasions: from Tom Clancy fans to Goodnight Moon hounds; from the Mennonite mother on a country road to the senior who occasionally needs help changing a smoke detector battery.

The traveling librarians, Uhl and Jan Carder, stop at prisons, at senior housing, at preschools. They read to squirmers, they make house calls, they dispense hugs. They take their task of getting books into the twitching hands of book lovers very, very seriously.

"It's one thing to jump on a computer and find information," said John Taube, director of the Allegany County Library System. "But for all the high-tech, you also need high-touch."

The number of bookmobiles in the U.S. is declining, although, if bookmobiles are defined loosely to include vans or other book outreach services, that isn't the case, said Bernard Vavrek, a library science professor at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. In 2003, this country was home to 864 bookmobiles.

Only 15 of those can be found in Maryland (Kentucky, by comparison, has the most with 98). But Maryland has another bookish claim to fame. The country's first bookmobile - a book wagon - was introduced 101 years ago by a Hagerstown librarian.

And here in hilly Western Maryland, the Allegany County bookmobile has its own claim on history. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the community gave its mobile library, along with thousands of donated books and $16,000 that the Maryland Library Association helped raise, to residents of the Gulf Coast town of Pearlington, Miss., where the storm had completely washed away the library.

A small crew of librarians drove the bookmobile south in December, setting out from Cumberland in a snowstorm. Accompanied by the sheriff on the last leg of the trip, they drove past shells of homes and piles of gray debris. Then, by the remains of the library and before a cluster of teary locals, the Marylanders unfurled a "Hancock County Library System" sign and stuck it on the side of the bus.

"So many libraries have to raise money for themselves. To give time and money to help another library is unprecedented," said Linda McKay, the assistant director of operations at the Mississippi library. "It offers hope to our community."

Back in Maryland, the Allegany County library had been a year or two away from retiring its old bookmobile and already had the funds to purchase the $93,000 replacement. But the timing was a bit off. For about six months, the Western Maryland community limped along bookmobile-less, making do with a temporary van.

Finally, a few weeks ago, the updated model arrived.

The new bookmobile is brighter inside and quieter. Though it's a bit smaller (all the better to travel on twisty back roads), there's more room to maneuver inside. It is wheelchair-accessible. It smells new. It hums amiably and has animated dancing books on the side.

On Sept. 6, the all-new traveling library returned to its rounds, and that's how it ended up on Furlow's block on a recent gray Wednesday.

"I was fixing breakfast and saw you," Diana Umstot, 39, says, excitedly hopping aboard and looking around appreciatively at the sleek set-up. "It's very nice."

She browses briefly before selecting two cookbooks and a decorating book.

"It's just kind of a neat feeling to walk out your door and there's a library there," she says.

Uhl and Carder take pride in getting to know their readers in a way that's not possible in what they call a "wheel-less" branch. They know which patrons hit the 20-book-a-person limit; the families who load up laundry baskets for 50 books at a time; who is likely to come aboard in pajamas.

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