By Anna Ferraro
If you’ve seen cars loaded down with books, and sporting a large blue umbrella set up at various Jacksonville locations over the summer, and you’ve mused, “that looks like a library on wheels,” you’re absolutely right. Headed up by Hillary Peppers, Cindy Boehlke and Bridget Dean, the Bookmobile project was an effort of the Jacksonville Public Library (JPL) to get books into the hands of every local child this summer.
Beginning in 2016, this project has grown each year in its size and appeal. This year, they had six strategically chosen locations, which they visited every Friday through the summer – successfully bridging the gap from when school lets out to when it returns to session again.
Peppers, the assistant director of the JPL shares, “We were just aware that there are a number of kids in the community that can’t get to a library on their own through the summer – whether it’s because of geographical distances, working parents’ schedules, or other reasons. As a library staff, we decided to go to them.”
Their process is simple and generous – anyone from ages 2 to 18 was able check out two books per week. Peppers explained, “Kids don’t have to have library cards, they just need to come and see us, sign up, and they can take home two books. When they return them the next week, they can get two more.”
And furthermore, Peppers shared, “There are no late fees or fines. We just know that are a lot of kids where circumstances don’t allow them to be a traditional library user, and we just adapt to their needs.”
Through community donations, the Bookmobile has a large variety of books for all ages, including board books, picture books, chapter books, juvenile, young adult, graphic novels, and comics, all sorted by reading order. Set up in large tubs under a big blue umbrella, next to a large banner, and manned by smiling library staff, the Bookmobile setup was hard to miss.
For most of her workweeks, Peppers works on the third floor of the library, doing referencing – except on summertime Fridays. Peppers chuckled, “I spend one day a week sweating with children throughout the summer.” To her and the other staff, it’s totally worth it. She says, “Nothing beats pulling up to a stop and seeing several kids clutching their books and waiting for you to arrive … They give spontaneous hugs and keep track of us week to week. If one of us is out for travel or other reasons, the kids know and ask about us … we’re also doing book reviews with the kids, and it’s so rewarding to see the kids be enthusiastic about what they’re reading as they interact with the materials and report back to us. That absolutely makes it worthwhile.”
Each year, participation has gone up. This year, their active participant list was up to over 100 kids. And for those 100 plus kids, there are hundreds of books to choose from. The project is run out of the staffs’ personal vehicles, and to say the least, the vehicles are brimming with books. Most of the books were provided through community donations, while the JPL purchased the additional materials for the projects of book containers, labels, and more. This year, the book collection was updated and is, in Peppers’ own words, “exciting and relevant.” She continued, “We are extremely pleased that it has been growing each year. We hope that we can keep doing this.”
And rightly so, because, week by week, Dean, Peppers and Boehlke made a difference in the lives of young community children that they frequent. Including bilingual materials in their mix, and awarding prizes through the summer, they are increasing education and value in the lives of kids who truly need it.
This year, the project enjoyed fantastic publicity thanks to the help of a local business – Serious Lip Balm. Donating an awareness-raising film as well as increasing the projects’ social media profile, Serious Lip Balm also donated a portion of their sales in May to help grow the bookmobile project. Peppers mentioned that there was some grant funding initially involved, but in the long-term, it’s the community funding and support that will keep projects like this going. For more information on how you can help visit www.jaxpl.org or call (217) 243-5435.