Q: What is your job?
A: My title is bookmobile driver.
Q: What led you to this job?
A: I was reading The Last Policeman and the story is about this asteroid that is going to hit the earth—like what would you do if humanity was going to be destroyed in eight months. And I thought I’d load up a van with my books and drive around and give them to people.
My degree is in arts management with a literary emphasis. I would check the library website from time to time to look for other jobs, but when I had this idea and I went to check the site—there it was.
Q: Do you need a commercial driver’s license to drive the bus?
A: Yes. And because of that it’s a hard job to fill.
Q: What is the bus like?
A: The bus was rebuilt in the late ‘90s but its origin is much earlier. It has a lot of wear and tear—for example, today the generator broke down. The shocks are the same that would be in World War II jeeps. Most bookmobiles don’t have this many issues.
It’s like a school bus—it started its life as a school bus. There are entrances on the sides and one at the back and one at the front like an RV.
Q: How many books are on the bus?
A: I’ve never been good at estimating this kind of thing but that number is written somewhere… To give you an idea, there are 25 feet of shelving on each side of the bus, and five rows of shelves. We typically don’t use the bottom shelf because the books will get dirty. And the shelves are slanted so the books don’t fall out.
Q: Does the bus have music?
A: Yes. There is a panel in the front, like on an ice cream truck. I always play it when we’re going into a neighborhood to let the kids know we’re coming. Or if I see someone on the street that I know. Some people think it’s a city bus so I have to let them know.
Q: What stops do you make?
A: We go to low-income housing, trailer parks, and government housing projects. I would say it’s 50% government housing, 50% low-income housing. Some neighborhoods are almost entirely East Asian kids. We go after school during the school year, and in summer we go earlier in the day so the generator doesn’t overheat.
Q: What do you do at each stop? Are you by yourself?
A: It’s me and another librarian. I sit at the back and check everything in while they browse the collection. We have their holds…
Q: You do holds?
A: Yeah. We have a complicated system for which books go to which sites, and we stock them each night.
Q: How many stops do you make? How many days do you do it?
A: We do it four days a week starting at 3:30. We spend about fifty minutes per stop and do three stops per night. We leave the last one at 7:30 and get back at 8.
Every other week we go to about twenty-four different communities. In the average month we see about a thousand people. At one stop there might be ten people, some less. The average is probably fifty-to-seventy people a day.
Q: Do you have to do a lot of haggling in your job?
A: Haggling is probably the right word. There’s lots of haggling. Like you need to bring this book back or you can’t take any more out.
They can only take out ten items at a time and sometimes all ten items go missing. Sometimes it’s not their fault, like they got kicked out of the house, or there was a fire or a robbery. But sometimes the person was just not responsible.
The interesting thing is that they don’t get late fees. If it’s like six weeks they’ll get billed for it but if they return it after that, the bill goes away.
We have more leeway to work with them than a normal library would.
Q: This sounds like you might be able to make a real difference in people’s lives.
A: Yes. There is one girl who is about fourteen who has been coming since she was like eight. She’s our most reliable customer. She usually gets about twenty books. We bend the rules for her.
I get a lot of kids who just say I want something about “football” or “fashion design.”
Q: Is the bookmobile there because there are no libraries nearby?
A: A lot of bookmobiles are in rural areas where there is no library. Or the city is laid out so that being a pedestrian is dangerous and there’s little to no mass transit. And if you can’t drive, it’s just not your priority.
It’s not all romantic—there are moments when parents will come on the bus and we’ll see them hit their kids, or it’s just obvious that the parents don’t care. You can see the cycle of poverty in action. And I think if I can get to this kid now, then maybe I can make a difference.
I think, “I’m going to put books in his hand and try to compartmentalize it and let it go.” We can be the face that is not unpleasant. They spend their lives waiting in line for food stamps, for health care… And we can be the face that is not unpleasant.
Q: You think you’ll be doing this job a long time?
A: Yes! They will have to pry that steering wheel out of my cold dead hands.
Q: In college I had a crush on a guy who said he drove a bookmobile. Any change of getting action on the bus?
A: A twin mattress in the aisle would be a tight squeeze but you totally could. Or there’s a bench in the back. Or maybe the driver’s seat, but you would have to make sure there were no keys in the ignition.
You know I had never thought about it before but you totally could!
Q: You just gave me the title of the interview.
A: Thanks. I’m going to be fired.