Traveling Libraries, Part 3: Challenges and Bookmobiles for Rural Kansas
written by Donna Casement, State Library of Kansas
(Full digitized copies of newspaper articles cited here can be found at KGI ONLINE LIBRARY)
In 1960, Zelia French, secretary of the Kansas Traveling Libraries Commission (TLC), presented a report summarizing the purpose and function of the Commission to the House of Representatives. In the report, she highlighted the constant challenge in providing library services to rural populations of Kansas.
“Two conditions regarding public library service in the state serve as a constant challenge to the agency’s work. First, there are approximately 556,000 persons in the state without access to local library service. These persons are partially served through the direct mail service of the Commission. Secondly, while there are 283 public libraries in the state, 200 of them are so small, that their individual operating budgets in 1957 were less than $2,000.” (Traveling Libraries Commission Report for the House of Representatives, January 26, 1960, by Zelia J. French, Secretary
One of the mandates of the Traveling Libraries Commission was to provide diversified and comprehensive collections of books as a supplement to existing libraries, and as a service to areas without local libraries.
This goal was supported financially in 1955, when the Commission was one of four states to receive a two-year grant of $12,000 under the Library-Community Project of the American Library Association. During the two years, a project director was employed and worked on the agency staff in carrying out the plan for statewide adult education promotion, and the study of adult education needs in the pilot library at Ottawa.
“The projects are to start on September 1. Miss Barnaby said today that suggestions are being studied, but no specific plans are yet made. Sixteen states made applications for the grant. Ottawa was chosen for the pilot library for the Kansas grant partly because of the cultural and geographical aspects of its location, and because of space facilities in the building.” (#1-The Ottawa Herald, July 20, 1955)
During the project, senior citizen statistics were gathered through questionnaires, and workshops with specialists were held throughout the state to address the reading needs of this group of patrons.
The study found that Ottawa had an unusually high percent of citizens, over 65, 14.1% compared to 10.2% average for the state. The study also showed that 3% of the registered borrowers who are retired checked out 12% of the books. (September 1956-Kansas Library Bulletin
The results of the study were presented at all six of the district meetings of the Kansas Library Association during the spring of 1956. Two publications resulted from the work done by the project director. They were a report of the Ottawa Study and State Agency Adult Education and a survey of the state agencies that include some phases of adult education in their programs. (1954-1956, 29th Biennial Report of the Kansas Traveling Libraries Commission
A pivotal piece of legislation for the Traveling Libraries Commission was the Federal Library Services Act that passed and became law in 1956. The provisions of the law were directed toward the extension of library services to rural areas and specified that towns of 10,000 population or less to be considered rural. Funds were received on a matching basis and money could not be spent on buildings or land.
The submitted state plan, necessary for receiving the funds, had three goals that included the strengthening and development of the basic program of the Traveling Libraries Commission, the study of existing library conditions to determine improvement, and the use of demonstrations for expanding existing library service and establishing new areas of service.
The first goal was put in motion when the agency was moved from the first floor of the Statehouse, where it has been housed since 1899, to a building at 801 Harrison in 1957. The 93,106 volume-traveling library was spread out through five rooms on the first floor of a building that was once Topeka High School. The federal funds allowed the addition of four staff members and the ability to buy necessary equipment to modernize the agency. (September 1960, The Kansas Library Bulletin
Federal matching funds were also helpful in the continual updating of the book collection. According to the 1960 House report by Secretary French, “Federal money can be spent for anything which state money can be expended. About half of the federal money each year since 1957, has been spent for books. The collection has been extensively rejuvenated.” (“Traveling Libraries Commission Report for the House of Representatives”, January 26, 1960 by Zelia J. French, Secretary
A state-owned bookmobile provided a mobile, targeted approach to loaning books. “In February 1958, a state-owned bookmobile was added to the Commission’s equipment. It carries on its shelves an elaborate collection of books for both adults and children on a great variety of subjects. An exhibit within an exhibit that is changed regularly to fit the interests of the particular organization to whom it is being shown. When taken to the workshops for trustees, there was a special section devoted to books, professional in nature and on subjects useful to library board members. When exhibited at 4H and county fairs, its shelves are filled with children’s books and books of interest to farmers,” wrote Zelia French, Secretary of the TLC. (1956-1958, 30th Biennial Report of the Kansas Traveling Libraries Commission
)September 1958, Kansas Library Bulletin
By 1960, the agency had two bookmobiles for exhibit and demonstration purposes and the use of two station wagons to accommodate the library service duties of the TLC staff.
September 1964, Kansas Library Bulletin
September 1960, Kansas Library Bulletin
In 1957, the Traveling Libraries Commission was statutorily given the authority to establish and maintain regional or area offices with appropriate work for the betterment of libraries. They were also given the authority to contract with municipalities and local libraries in projects that demonstrated library services.
Beginning in 1961, Kansas’ first attempt at a two-county regional library for Pottawatomie and Wabaunsee counties, was initiated by the Traveling Libraries Commission. The law providing for a regional library organization of either two or more counties or two or more townships had been on the state statutes since 1951. This project was supported by Commission staff, county leadership from Home Demonstration Units, schools, and other organization.
The TLC book mobile visited every school in both counties and attended any location where people gathered regularly. Direct mail carried 5,561 schedules and fact sheets to the post office box holder. Federal funds and state funds were used for this project. Library books and service inundated the rural communities. (December 1962, Kansas Library Bulletin
June 1961, Kansas Library Bulletin
The support for the regional library required a one and a half mill levy and expected to raise about $60,000 to support the library as a two-county service. After the 17-month demonstration of library service in Pottawatomie and Wabaunsee counties, the first regional library in Kansas was established by a two to one vote in the general election in 1962. (December 1962, Kansas Library Bulletin
The Traveling Libraries Commission received the John Cotton Dana Publicity Award for Outstanding Publicity during 1962. The award stated, “Traveling Libraries Commission, Topeka Kansas: For an imaginative publicity program used in a campaign to bring to a successful popular vote a public library demonstration in two rural counties in Kansas.” The John Cotton Dana award is a prestigious award given to libraries and honors outstanding library public relations. The Wabaunsee-Pottawatomie campaign is presented in a 89-page scrapbook titled, Developing a Regional Library in Kansas
by the Kansas Traveling Libraries Commission. The book contains news clippings, photos, brochures, flyers and excerpts from Kansas publications.
Louise McNeal, the eighth State Librarian, was chair of the Kansas Traveling Libraries Commission from July 1, 1926 through June 30, 1962, the extent of her service as the state librarian. McNeal was instrumental in the success of the traveling libraries throughout her 36 years of service. One year after her retirement, the TLC was abolished and integrated into the State Library.
The Traveling Libraries Commission was abolished in 1963. H.B. 334 set the statutory changes to integrate the statewide programs of the State Library and the Traveling Libraries Commission. Within the State Library, the Library Public Extension Division would continue providing loaned books and services to rural communities. The Stormont Medical Library was removed from state control and turned over to the Stormont-Vail Hospital in Topeka. This statute also created the State Library Advisory Commission comprised of seven members, six of whom shall be appointed by the governor.
In 1964, two State Library bookmobiles continued to drive the rural roads, loaning books to underserved rural populations and advancing the need for library services under the guidance of the extension division.
September 1964, Kansas Library Bulletin
The Kansas regional library systems were established in 1965 with the primary goal of improving existing library services and programs and to extend library services to areas where it was previously unavailable.
In 1965, the Central Kansas Library Service set up a mobile library service to meet the needs of its patrons. “Only a few weeks ago, a unique mobile library service was inaugurated for the people of Western Kansas. Under the direction of Mrs. Ruth Leek, and M. C. Lewis of Great Bend, hundreds of rural readers now have access to a circulating library in their own localities for the first time. At the present time the service circulates over 13,000 books through 20 libraries over a total route of 700 miles, every other week.” (#2-Great Bend Tribune, September 26, 1965)
Central Kansas Library Service Bookmobile
Other library systems loaned books and provided library organization services to libraries within their region. In September 1971, Mrs. Don Breeding, assistant librarian at Marysville Library reported that 180 new books from the North Central Library System traveling library had arrived. The library system helped the Marysville Library weed its collection and resell the weeded books for 25 cents each. (#3-The Marysville Advocate, September 23, 1971)
The first American traveling libraries supported by public funds, were authorized by the New York State Legislature
in 1892. In 1897, the Kansas Federation of Clubs laid the groundwork for a statewide traveling library system. In 1899 the Kansas legislature passed the traveling library bill, and the Traveling Library Commission would oversee the distribution of hundreds of thousands of books across Kansas for the next 63 years.