National Bookmobile Day: Historically SpeakEasy

Written by Amanda Foreman

Posted on April 26, 2023

Filed Under: Blog

At House of SpeakEasy we believe that book-ownership should be a right, not a privilege.

In 2017, with the help of Billy and Kathy Rayner, we launched The SpeakEasy Bookmobile.

We came up with the design logo – but – historically speaking – the idea was Aristotle’s.

Owning a book is a unique form of wealth. What the SpeakEasy BookMobile is doing is enabling that wealth to be shared.

The kings of Babylon built the first libraries. But they weren’t so interested in the sharing part. This is where Aristotle comes in. He amassed the largest private collection of books in the world, and let it circulate.

But since not everyone could read, Aristotle also shared the knowledge they contained by giving free lectures throughout Athens. He turned himself into a bookmobile – on legs.

Aristotle’s mission was the same as SpeakEasy’s today: to foster a sense of community, spread ideas, and educate young people.

Libraries and mass literacy were among the first casualties from the Fall of Rome in the 5th century. Book ownership became the greatest privilege of all. Few people ever questioned why it should be this way until the rise of universal education in the 19th century.

Step forward the working-class members of the Mechanics Institute in Warrington, England.

Frustrated with living in a book desert, in 1859 they raised 275 pounds – about $35,000 to day – for a “Perambulating Library”. In its first year it lent out over 12,000 books.

In the US, the credit for America’s first bookmobile belongs to Miss Mary Titcomb, head librarian of Washington County, Maryland. She was very proper, kind of scary, and a total visionary. “The book goes to the man”, she declared. To make that happen, in 1904, she purchased a horse-drawn wagon with specially fitted shelves, just like House of SpeakEasy’s.

Her idea spread like wildfire.

During the Great Depression, the WPA funded its own fleet of bookmobiles – even the Defense Department got on board, sending converted jeeps to the front lines during World War II.

By 1956, more than 30 million Americans were relying on bookmobiles. Margaret Atwood once wrote, “the Bookmobile was the whole world parked on my gravel road.” Even today, in the age of the Internet, there are over 600 bookmobiles in service.

But SpeakEasy BookMobile does something different.

It goes where the need is greatest and distributes new books for free. We launched shortly after the last general bookstore in the Bronx, – home to 1.5 million residents – closed its doors.

What does that mean? According to an NYU study, it means neighborhoods where there is 1 children’s book per 300 children.

The BookMobile doesn’t just serve the Five Boroughs. In 2019, the year before Covid, it drove 4,000 miles across country, visiting 18 cities in 14 states. Seriously Entertaining went with it, and we distributed over 10,000 books along the way.

The Pandemic created a lot of need, and the BooKMobile was there to help, thanks to the Mayor’s Office, Bank of America, and Amazon Literary Partnerships. We even started a whole new books program – the Artmobile – with a generous grant from the Helen frankenthaler Foundation.

There is so much more more we want to achieve. We don’t need ChatGPT to imagine what future SpeakEasy BookMobiles might look like – but we asked it anyway.

We’re proud that the SpeakEasy Bookmobile is part of a long tradition, and with your support we will continue the work of those who came before us.

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