If you’ve frequented out-of-the-way parking lots in Spenard this month, you might have encountered something that seemed out of place — a bookmobile from Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County.
Of course, surplus-ed and repurposed vehicles aren’t an uncommon sight in Alaska. Who doesn’t know somebody with a bus they’re turning into a camper? But the people behind the bookmobile have no designs on repurposing it. This bus won’t end its life hauling moose meat out of Game Management Unit 14A. In fact, the Bookmobilists want to pull this wheeled library out of retirement, get it back on the road, promoting literacy like it used to, thousands of miles away.
“We are really curious about what a library can be. Especially one that isn’t brick and mortar. I mean a library is so much more than a collection of books,” says local artist Jimmy Riordan, one of the driving forces behind the project.
The project could use your help. The bookmobile has qualified for matching funds from In Our Backyards (IOBY), a crowdfunding organization that focuses on community improvement projects. The fundraising effort will help spruce the bookmobile up, fill it with materials, and fix anything that stopped working during its years in service or rattled loose on the way up the Alcan. The project can be found at ioby.org/project/alaska-bookmobile.
“The bookmobile is 20 years old, but in great shape. And with the dollar for dollar match IOBY’s offering through it’s Artist Lead program we have the opportunity to do the repairs and updates needed to get out and about around town. We’re also really excited about hearing from people that want to get involved,” Riordan said.
The bookmobile is, to say the least, an intriguing concept. Municipal libraries have been in retreat in recent years, mostly closing their doors and consolidating. But here’s a group of artists planning to open another one, albeit miniature and mobile. Organizers say they’re not opposed to partnering with the city and would welcome the help. But the plan doesn’t require that kind of backing.
And, right now, in its conceptual stages and, as yet, without any kind of a mandate, the library could pretty much be anything — from a formal operation with library cards and due dates to an art and performance venue to a guerilla operation flying under the radar and distributing books to the masses.
“We plan to approach this project as artists, thinking creatively in how we understand the possible interpretations and applications of a library on wheels. This creative perspective will shape our decision making, from the bookmobile’s content and organization, to its possible alternative uses as a venue for art, music and performance,” the project’s fundraising page on In Our Backyards.
Riordan’s work as an artist frequently focuses on printmaking and bookbinding, making the bookmobile a natural progression for him. And the printmaking comes in handy as he puts together evocative swag to hand out to donors.
He’s also well suited to make the connections needed to get something like this on the road. On a recent afternoon over drinks with this reporter (full disclosure — we’ve been friends since we met in at Robert Service High School in the mid-90s), he solicited input from friends he just happened to run into at Rustic Goat.
Bookmobilists have already started looking for partners — the Anchorage Community House, Out North Contemporary Art and Anchorage Parks Foundation are all mentioned on the IOBY page. There’s even a couple local appearances planned already. On December 10 at The Writer’s Block in Spenard, Riordan will participate in Culture Shift, an event hosted by the Alaska Humanities Forum.
Catch up on the bookmobile’s journey thus far — and follow future movements and sightings via its Instagram handle: @ak_bookmobile. The feed chronicles the bookmobile’s Odyssey from Pittsburgh through Canada and into Alaska. Along the way there are gigantic mouse statues, flocks of motorcycles and, of course, a trip through the Sign Forest in Watson Lake, Yukon Territory — because what trip up the Alcan is complete without a stop at the Sign Forest?
“Along the drive, the most moving thing was how many people approached us, reminiscing about their own experiences with bookmobiles. It was these conversations at gas stations and camp grounds that inspired us to keep the bus a bookmobile once the drive was over,” he said.
Andrew Wellner is a former Mat-Su Valley-area reporter who lives in Palmer.