The SPL Traveling Library

early 20th century book delivery boys somerville ma

The library bookmobile is one way that libraries can meet their users who might not be able to use the library ordinarily. Bookmobiles date way back in the United States, beginning around the early 1900s. Back then they were typically referred to as “traveling libraries” or “wagon libraries”. Libraries would use various forms of transportation, such as bicycles, carts, wagons, or even donkeys to get books to readers!

Somerville Public Library joined this new way of serving patrons by having local boys deliver library books to readers across the city. In 1901 the library formed a group of 15 boys to carry out the deliveries.

In the 1901 Annual Report of the library, Charles A. West, President of the Board of Trustees, wrote, “A system of house-to-house delivery has been inaugurated, and at the present time fifteen boys are engaged in the work. Most of the routes covered may be considered successful, as the plan has been much favored by people who have not before patronized the Library in consequence of their inability to reach the library or their lack of knowledge of what was theirs for the asking.”  

According to our 1904 annual report, the delivery boys would get two cents per book that they delivered. In 1903 alone they delivered 7,990 books!  A concrete end date of this delivery service cannot be found. However, we can estimate the delivery system ended around 1908 since that is the last record we have mentioning the delivery system. This was around the same time Somerville was looking into establishing the West Branch as well as reading rooms in East Somerville and Union Square in addition to the library's already existing agencies located throughout the city. It would make sense that the delivery system would end around this time since more citizens would have access to the library’s services. In fact, librarian Sam Walter Foss foresaw this would happen as the library would continue to grow. In 1904 he remarked that while the delivery system was still up and running, “The growing use of the agencies renders this service unnecessary in most sections of the city.” The home-to-home delivery service numbers dwindled to 2,490 books in 1904.

While we no longer have a group of delivery boys to deliver your books, we do offer free home delivery to homebound patrons who are Somerville residents. To sign up for this service, call the reference desk at (617) 623-5000 x2955 and say that you are interested in the Community Services assistance. Our librarians can get the process started and answer any questions you may have. Additionally, we host “pop up libraries” at different city events where you can sign up for a library card and browse a small collection of books!

If you are interested in traveling libraries, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson or The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes might be of interest to you. Both books are historical fiction that tells the story of the Pack Horse Library Project in Kentucky during the Great Depression.

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