Kalamazoo’s branch libraries served many of the neighborhoods and communities that were beyond the Central Business District. Yet, by the 1950s, the growing decentralization of residents to suburban regions led library administrators to consider new approaches to outreach services.
In 1956 the Kalamazoo Board of Education, who oversaw library operations until 1990, requested that library director William Chait examine the benefits and need for bookmobile service in Kalamazoo. After observing services in cities such as Lansing, Grand Rapids, and Detroit, Chait concluded that a bookmobile could serve surrounding neighborhoods and townships that do not yet have branch libraries.
In the eastern United States, library book wagons had been established as early as 1905 to reach rural residents. The concept of a traveling library adapted well to the automobile, and enough bookmobiles existed by the late-1930s that the American Association of Libraries developed guidelines for the service.
With funding from the State of Michigan library aid money, the Kalamazoo Board of Education approved the bookmobile. Service to area schools and neighborhoods was underway by fall 1956, servicing areas lacking a nearby library branch such as Oakwood, West Main Hill, and the Kalamazoo State Hospital. Books for children and adults combined to create a traveling collection of over 4000 volumes. After six months the popularity of the bookmobile had increased notably, leading director Chait to report, “With the increased use of our service has come increased interest and a problem of maintaining a sufficient book stock.”
By the mid-1960s, residents of townships and villages such as Cooper, Alamo, and Texas Township still were not within the jurisdiction of a library. To serve these communities the Kalamazoo County Library Board, using state penal fines, purchased a bookmobile in 1966. The County Bookmobile, staffed by the library but funded by the county, provided rural residents with access to 2400 books. Staff also brought library programming such as children’s story time and historical talks to outlying residents. By 1987, easier access to nearby libraries, problems with maintenance, and county budget restraints pushed Kalamazoo County to cut county bookmobile service.
In 2000, with donor support, the library purchased a new bookmobile with a capacity of 4000 items, including reference and audio-visual material. Though it required substantial funding for maintenance and staff, the district bookmobile continued to serve neighborhoods and schools without nearby branch libraries. By 2009, financial concerns and a decline in bookmobile patronage led the Kalamazoo Public Library Board of Trustees to phase out services entirely in favor of more affordable outreach services.