After 28 years of reaching into parts of the city where no libraries were to be found, the Bookmobile is logging its last miles this summer. The service will be discontinued in September because of funding cuts in the public library budget director Hardy Franklin confirmed this week.
Although the move had not been announced publicly, Franklin told the Bookmobile staff of the decision two weeks ago. "This is a very sad time for us," said Philippina Buwalda, chief of the Bookmobile. "We serve many children and senior citizens who live in isolated or deprived areas. What will happen to them? Where can they go to read, to learn? I just don't know. It makes me feel terrible."
Franklin said he had no choice but eliminate the Bookmobile program. He explained that the library budget has been cut during each of the last seven years, including base reductions of $129,000 for the coming year.
In recent years, Franklin said, library officials have coped with funding cutbacks by reducing the open hours at several major branches from 62 hours a week to 40.
"I'm sure we're going to get complaints about this decision," Franklin said. "But we just don't have sufficient resources. We're scraping the barrel now as it is. It came down to a choice between closing the Bookmobile or one of our permanent facilities."
Franklin said he considers the move a suspension rather than a shutdown of operations. "If we receive the funds to keep it open, we will," he said.
But a Bookmobile staff member said, "I was told it's final. The decision's been made." She added, "We're fighting for survival, but I just don't know what we can do."
One thing is certain. The Bookmobile isn't closing for lack of interest. Franklin said that last year more than 44,000 people used the facility, giving it a total circulation of 170,000 volumes. Buwalda estimated that the Bookmobile gave out at least one book per minute for every minute of public service last year.
Buwalda also reported that the Bookmobile accounted for one-third of all the juvenile library use in the area east of the Anacostia River, although there are nine other library facilities in that vicinity.
In addition, a special book mobile serving the Lorton Reformatory had a circulation last year of 16,000 volumes. That service is also being discontinued.
The Bookmobile now makes 26 stops a week in most parts of the city but primarily in the southeast section of the District.It goes to several schools and homes for the elderly.
"We reach the people who wouldn't get to a library otherwise," Buwalda said. "The people get to know us, to wait for us, no matter what the weather. It's rewarding for us and them."
Some 3,000 books of all varieties line the walls of the Bookmobile, which is surprisingly spacious considering it is smaller than a school bus. Buwalda said she thinks of the facility as a "community center on wheels" where people can get meet each week to get books and to exchange stories.
There are actually two Bookmobiles on the road every weekday and a third in storage in case of mechanical failures. Franklin said mechanical failures have been a problem in the past. And he said the units spend 15 hours a week driving around between stops. "That costs a lot of money," he noted.
Franklin said the 11 staff members currently working at the Bookmobile will be reassigned to other duties in the library system in September. And he said the library will increase its homebound services for senior citizens.
But that is small consolation for the many people, young and old, who have come to look forward to visiting the Bookmobile each week.
"I think it's a shame," said Lawrence Randall, who takes his two daughter to the Bookmobile stop on Ontario Road NW every Tuesday. "One of my girls learned to read here. They both love books. But there's no way I'll be able to take them to a library as often now."
Randall said he plans to write a letter to library officials protesting the decision. "This is such a vital service to the community," he said. "Somebody's got to do something to save it."