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Portland Public Library hits the road with Maine's only bookmobile

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Portland Public Library hits the road with Maine's only bookmobile

PORTLAND — The Portland Public Library's new bookmobile is a "mobile branch" that will soon be bringing books and library services to residents throughout the city.

But with a sticker price of $166,000, a customized Mercedes-Benz chassis, Wi-Fi connectivity and LED lighting, this clearly is not your father's bookmobile.

It's also the only bookmobile operating in the state, and is the first one in Portland since 1994, Executive Director Stephen Podgajny said Friday.

While Portland's previous bookmobile was a lumbering, bus-sized vehicle, the new one is only 24 feet long, designed to carry about 1,500 books to areas where its predecessor could not easily go, according to Podgajny. He said the bookmobile will focus on serving families in neighborhoods without a library branch, as well as individuals who cannot travel to one.

"The idea is going into neighborhoods not served right now with a facility, and going to populations that are vulnerable, who need literacy support or other help," Podgajny said.

The idea for bringing the bookmobile to Portland stems from the city's plans to close three library branches in 2010 as a cost-cutting measure. While one of the them, the Riverton branch on outer Forest Avenue, was ultimately saved and recently expanded, branches on Munjoy Hill and in the West End were shuttered.

A "portable library" program was proposed at the time as an alternative. The program includes not only the use of the bookmobile, but mini-collections that are available on an honor system at locations such as the METRO bus station on Elm Street.

"The concept (of the portable library) is based on the idea of us going out to people," Podgajny said. "This is a whole different kind of library experience."

The bookmobile was delivered March 15 after a four-day cross-country trip from Las Vegas, where it was assembled. The new vehicle was designed from the start to be both eco- and user-friendly.

"This is resurrecting an old idea and making it more in scale, more environmentally responsible," Podgajny said.

Rooftop solar panels help power the vehicle's electrical systems, and its clean-burning diesel engine gets an average of 22 mpg. The bookmobile is wheelchair-accessible, and has room inside for three or four people to browse titles. The wireless connectivity allows staff to issue library cards and check out borrowings, and allows patrons to access the Internet from their laptop computers.

With a public-address system and awnings that can be extended from the vehicle's sides, the bookmobile is also equipped to host events outside its cabin.

Podgajny said the library is working with partners to plan educational events and programs using the bookmobile. For example, KeyBank contributed $50,000 toward its purchase and will likely offer financial education sessions with the help of the bookmobile, he added. Health fairs may be offered using the vehicle, too.

Nearly another $50,000 has been raised from private foundations and other sources to stock the mobile branch with a dedicated collection of books.

The bookmobile is scheduled to initially operate about 20 hours a week, with a schedule of stops now being finalized, according to Brian Damien, head of the library's branch and outreach services. But one of the first stops will be the First Friday Art Walk on April 5, when the bookmobile will be open for business in Monument Square from 5-8 p.m.

"We're already getting the sense that there's going to be incredible demand (for the bookmobile)," Damien said. "There's really a lot of excitement."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.