As bookmobile is halted, librarian moves on

By Jeanette Der Bedrosian
The Gazette
Thursday, June 3, 2010; GZ19

Inside Montgomery County's bookmobile, Susie Andrews is in her element.

Surrounded by nursery school students, Curious George and Dora the Explorer and photos of the thousands of children she has served during the past 34 years, Andrews holds up a book about colors and begins reading.

"Are lemons red?" she starts. "Noooooo, lemons are not red. Apples are red!"

Her May 21 visit to a "truck touch" event at Rockville's Temple Beth Ami Nursery School marked the end of an era. After operating the bookmobile for decades, Andrews is retiring a few months early, and the bookmobile is being taken out of service for at least two years because of budget constraints, she said. Library officials said they will use the time to think about the most efficient way to get books into the hands of low-income families.

Andrews said she typically spends five hours per day, five days per week visiting subsidized housing communities and schools with Head Start, a nursery-school program for low-income families.

Andrews takes books to children whose parents might not take them to the library, delivering such popular favorites as "Llama Llama Red Pajama" and educational books that students need for school projects, she said. Her mobile van also is stocked with teen novels and "urban literature" for young parents.

"These are kids that may not make it to the library because it's just not a priority in this recession," she said. "Their parents, they're worried about food and rent, not books."

Andrews, 67, of the District said she had planned on retiring in October, but when she heard the bookmobile was being discontinued, she opted to leave a few months early to save a younger librarian's job.

The cramped, generator-operated trailer contains two long walls lined with books. A tiny counter with a laptop serves as a checkout desk, with library cards of the county's subsidized-housing children stored alphabetically in small boxes. In front of the shelves are two ledges where can children sit. When they march in, pointing and pulling each other's hair, Andrews comes to life.

For hours, she reads about the color of lemons and happy animals shouting "Hooray!" to groups of kids, never losing her gusto. She visits each community every other week and learns about the kids while delivering books to them.

The county is cutting its mobile-services van at the same time many families need it more than ever, Andrews said. When she talks to parents and teachers about the end of her run, they tell her they are outraged by the county's decision to cut the bookmobile.

Liz Crickey, a teacher from Olney, took her sons a few weeks ago to a different "truck touch," an event in which kids can explore fire engines, taxis, tow trucks and the bookmobile, and said she was overwhelmed by Andrews's fervor and devotion.

"I've only met her once, but she just drew me in," Crickey said. "I could have stayed there for hours chatting with her. . . . You can just see in her eyes that she loves what she does."

The 12-year-old van is in bad shape, said Michele Sellars, public services administrator for community engagement and outreach with Montgomery's library system. She added that the county needs to reevaluate its mobile-services options.

"It's at the end of its life cycle and was in disrepair for most of its time," she said. "So we need to take this time to replan outreach services for Montgomery County."

Eliminating the van is one of several cost-cutting measures the library system has been forced to make in the difficult economy. Montgomery's library operating budget will go from $37.6 million this fiscal year to $28.9 million for fiscal 2011, which begins July 1.

The bookmobile costs $225,000 per year to operate and staff, said Eric Carzon, business manager for county libraries. He said breakdowns have kept it in the shop for nearly half the year.

Carzon and Sellars declined to comment on what 21st-century-style mobile services might look like but said they will not resemble the trailer Andrews has driven. Andrews said she thinks the county might opt to place books at affordable-housing centers for children.

Besides cutting the bookmobile's service in the upcoming fiscal year, libraries soon will lose funding for their summer-reading program, and branches will be forced to cut hours.

Sellars said the library is focused on maintaining staffing wherever possible for customers who walk through the door. She said that although the summer-reading program won't be in place because of staff cuts, branches still will host popular summer programs, such as magic shows, interactive theater productions and a presentation on dinosaurs by the Maryland Science Center. The programs are made possible by Friends of the Library, Montgomery County, she said.

Andrews said she plans to continue interacting with children. She will volunteer at St. Anthony Catholic School and the HSC Pediatric Center, which recently changed its name from the Hospital for Sick Children, both in the District.

"It seems like some people are just born to work with kids," she said. "I just have this passion, and I don't know where it came from."

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