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What Can You Learn from a Bookmobile in an Oil Crisis?

Can the fate of a bookmobile in an oil crisis tell us something about how libraries should approach technology today?
Can the fate of a bookmobile in an oil crisis tell us something about how libraries should approach technology today?

In 1973, to protest United States support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries launched an oil embargo that led to widespread gasoline shortages in the U.S. and around the world. While many Americans waited in long lines at gas stations, or went without, others found less savory solutions. For months during the crisis, gasoline in the El Paso Public Library’s bookmobiles was siphoned and stolen in the night. And it wasn’t until bookmobile operator Valentin Ontiveros suggested parking the vehicles side-by-side but facing opposite directions, so that each blocked the other’s gas tank, that the thievery (and the hit to the library’s budget) stopped.

I’m a Ph.D. candidate in history, completing a dissertation about the role of bookmobiles in building and contesting communities in the U.S. So when I found this anecdote, I was thrilled. It’s a great little story that illustrates how the bookmobile ended up enmeshed in so many aspects of American life.

But it’s also a lesson for libraries working to adapt to new tools and growing infrastructures today. This summer, as a Google Policy Fellow at the ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy, I’ve been developing a set of principles to help libraries and policy-makers plan for an uncertain and increasingly digital future. Bookmobiles are a fantastic case study for this. They offer a robust example of how libraries took advantage of the power offered by new technologies (internal combustion!) and the connectivity offered by emerging networks (paved roads and highways!). Today, as libraries exploit similar forces made available by newer technologies (e-books!) and more emergent networks (broadband!), it’s worth looking back to see how libraries adapted to them in the past.

The El Paso story suggests, for example, that flexibility is one of the most important principles to bring to bear in planning for new environments. When libraries first started to send out bookmobiles powered by internal combustion engines in the 1910s, it would have been rather difficult to predict that six decades later, conflicts among nation-states (some of which didn’t even exist then) would end up affecting a local program in Texas. But using gas-powered vehicles meant tying library service to an infrastructure running from the local governments that paved roads to the global system of petroleum extraction.

And that’s really the lesson here: New technologies and new networks mean unexpected problems. Connecting your library to broadband internet and offering e-books for checkout means becoming enmeshed in in a vast web dependent on cooperation (or at least tolerance) among telecom providers, hardware manufacturers, publishers, and governments–not to mention the good will of hackers.

Libraries can’t predict the future, but they can plan for flexible response to unpredictable situations.

How will your library respond to planned obsolescence in digital devices? What will your library do when local demographics shift dramatically, or when patrons’ technology and content demands suddenly change? What will happen if your digital content provider wants to dramatically renegotiate your license agreements? How quickly will you adjust when your internet- or technology-use user policies don’t seem to be working anymore? And how will your library respond to problems we can’t even currently imagine?

Building opportunities for frequent evaluation and course-correction into the library’s management and practice is one way to design for flexibility. This can include regular morning staff meetings like the ones that helped the Independence Public Library go from struggling to being the “Best Small Library in America.” Or it could mean more general efforts to empower staff-members to make connections and propose suggestions for how to change the library’s position in the world. Let the whole staff, in other words, be Valentin Ontiveros.

My final report, which will be available to all of you, will examine many more cases (a color-coded bookmobile program that promoted racial segregation during Jim Crow, for example, or a collection of mid-century romance novels about bookmobile librarians), as well as more ideas about how the bookmobile’s past relates to libraries’ future. So stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, you can read more of my thoughts about information in motion over at And check out the Digital Content and Libraries Working Group’s new series of tip-sheets for help as you plan for flexibility.

Derek Attig
Google Policy Fellow
Office for Information Technology Policy, ALA Washington Office

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Jacob Roberts is the communications specialist for the ALA Washington Office.

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