Bookmobile(s) for the Future versus Bricks and Mortar Branch(es)

steampunk bookmobile

Now that I have your attention the rest is boring text for now. The above Steampunk vehicle could be a bookmobile! (missing the link to image)

Bookmobiles are best for outreach
With the heavy use the current stats show us for how successful the Rochester Public Library bookmobile service is, an additional new vehicle would serve two purposes. Adding another bookmobile would allow for extended hours perhaps, longer stops, and additional service locations as well as higher frequency.

Bang for the Buck with Bookmobiles
At $300,000 a year, the cost of operating a bookmobile for TEN YEARS still only comes to $3,000,000 ($3 million). Bookmobiles are able to be repaired and replaced more easily than a bricks and mortar facility.

A bricks and mortar BRANCH library would cost a minimum of $12,000,000 to build — not to mention the COST OF THE LAND and all the infrastructure necessary (sewer, water, etc.). Plus the cost of staffing would be huge and yet might only serve a fraction of the people that the bookmobile could serve because LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION. Where the mobility of a bookmobile practically allows door service, such as by going to DENSE MULTI-FAMILY apartment complexes, or possibly assisted living facilities, users of branch libraries STILL HAVE TO SPEND TIME AND MONEY to transport themselves to a branch library.

Bookmobiles carry ever changing masses of thousands of books and can bring reserves made online to the neighborhood (as well as pick up returns). This saves many people time and car trips to either a central library or a branch library. EVEN IF TRANSIT WERE ADEQUATE (which it is not), the cost per person per trip there and back again renders the “free” of Public Library a least $4.00 for one trip, plus travel time. Maybe a branch library would be closer and be a shorter travel time, but likely as not, the bus would come infrequently and still would require the time to get to a bus stop (in all weather) and wait for the bus (probably without a shelter or seating).

Duplication of Collection Materials
With branch libraries, virtually all their material (books, videos, etc.) WOULD HAVE TO DUPLICATE the central library collection materials. While some books are already doubled (popular authors and series for example), the COST OF DUPLICATES serves to reduce the collection depth to the detriment of all users.

Intracity Interlibrary Loan $$$
Because much of the reason branch libraries are popular involves closer proximity to be able to pick up books, electronic reserves would be based on the WHOLE LIBRARY CATALOG and users would expect to have the books DELIVERED TO THE BRANCH LIBRARY. This would be very expensive.

An interlibrary loan from anywhere in the state costs about $10 per book and is amazingly fast in massive delivery. Library users would expect next day service delivery to their branches. I expect the $10 per book cost would be about the same INTRA city since a large part of the cost would be the fixed salary for a driver and the time to load and unload books. It would also require a specialized vehicle to transport the books there and back again, so a minimum of a van size would be necessary.

By the time you calculate all the costs, ongoing operational costs, you might as well be spending the money on a bookmobile that brings the books to the people directly.

Because of the geology of the city, and the new growth, and the regional towns that also are served by the Rochester Public Library, picking the spot for ONE LIBRARY BRANCH TO GO is a fraught political issue. Social justice would say that any branch should go in the underserved neighborhoods. New growth is predominantly to the north and west.

Bookmobiles can go everywhere and serve everyone so no one would feel like their tax dollars went to serve one half or quarter of the city at their expense.

Operational Costs of Bookmobiles
Even at $300,000 a year, the cost of running a bookmobile contrasted with the cost of a branch library between overhead and staffing — and the overhead costs 24×7 and the staffing level controls the possible hours of operation and accessibility — a branch library will always cost more to operate.

Branch libraries would be expected to put on programming just like at the central location, and that requires considerable resources (again probably redundant) as well as staffing.

Branch Hours of Operation Require Full Staffing
Public and library staff require some level of safety concerns at branches, in part because the branches would have fewer staff in general. The current library does have a security officer in the library in the evenings. Presumably the cost of a second security officer would be a part of any branch staffing as well.

It does not seem to me to be financially feasible to fully staff a branch library with a reference librarian, a children’s librarian, circulation and shelving staff, and programming staff for a full 7 days a week schedule, and a 9:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. M-Th, plus the usual Friday-Sunday hours.

As a branch library, it makes sense that it be open in the evening when parents are able to DRIVE their kids to the branch. Some kids might be able to walk or bike to a branch on there own, but I don’t know how many parents would want their kids doing so alone for safety reasons (child abductions) and sheer danger (cars) and risks for them doing so. So you really have to have it open then. Weekends would also make sense for that reason. But I don’t think there has ever been a branch that only operated on “family friendly” hours.

Doing so also precludes the families and people who work NIGHT SHIFTS and so only have the daytime to use the library. In Rochester, because of the predominant employment being medical with the 24×7 operations that requires, some people would be excluded from using a branch not open in the daytime.

Remember too that the cost of salary for employees is only part of the cost of labor: there is vacation time that accrues, sick days, matching retirement funds, and other benefits that can cost another 40% or so of some of the labor costs. Not to mention health insurance.

The bookmobile only requires one staffer per vehicle, and possibly lower pay than a professional librarian. One figure I saw was about $50,000 a year. Pretty good gig. Not that I could do it since I can barely manage to drive a small car and park it.

Because of the inherent redundancy of branch libraries, when budget cuts are required, branch libraries are an easy target. Heck, the main library reduces hours in the summer already. If a branch library is shut down, it does not mean that no library services are provided since there is the main library.

Bookmobiles don’t cost as much, but even so, they could run less frequently or something similar but because their basic operational cost is relatively low, eliminating the bookmobile(s) would not result in large savings.


Bookmobiles, especially new “green” ones, make the most sense to reach the most people because they are MOBILE. Bringing the books to people is better than making all the people spend their time and money to come to a branch. We are a small city. Driving 5 miles to a central library is not a big deal that requires spending $12 million dollars to provide a branch only 2 miles away from one-quarter of some of the city residents.

Also let’s face it: the reason our library is a problem to many people now is THE LACK OF PARKING. It is not a “free” public library when you have to pay to park, just like it is not free if you have to pay for transit. THE BOOKMOBILE is truly free in that it requires no transportation by the residents served.

Branches cost double-digit millions to build, and massive amounts to staff and keep the doors open. A branch collection depletes funding for unique books for the collection and duplicates existing collection titles to a high degree.

NEW MAIN LIBRARY OR EXPANSION negatively impacted by branch costs
Spending money like $12 million on a branch library would compromise any rehab and fixes for the main library that is in desperate need of a major overhaul. If we stick with the most recent (and climbing daily) estimate of $55 million for expansion of the main library, leaves $43 million for any expansion. Probably not enough to add two floors so maybe only one floor could be added, reducing the heavily used capacity during construction as well trying to stay open while replacing the HVAC and elevators and so much more.

The current library would not work for a second bookmobile though because there is only one garage for the existing bookmobile. But a NEW LIBRARY BUILDING would be able to provide space for two bookmobiles, as well as parking for visiting school buses. FREE parking for employees and library users means the library would truly be a FREE public library. Transit should be able to access it easily, and since I propose that transit should be FARE FREE, that would also help make main library access more affordable.

One final note: We don’t know what dramatic changes might exist for transportation in the near future. Amazon has reportedly been considering using DRONES for the “last mile” problem of freight delivery. Pretty sure a few cases of cat food aren’t going to be able to be delivered by drone, but hey, I read a lot of science fiction so don’t dismiss anything.

The city is spending a lot time thinking about autonomous vehicles. Maybe we would end up with a group of small vans for bookmobiles that drove around town without drivers!

As more and more people are reading eBooks, and streaming video, and accessing reference material and magazines online, instead of hard copies, BRANCHES become less and less useful. We don’t need bricks and mortar with all the information in the world becoming digital. There are many applications out there now for reading digital books with a swipe of the fingers to turn the pages.

Like the way music has become a digital commodity at $1 a song, I could see the possibility of digital books on demand via libraries on a one by one basis per user request, and then the library “buying” it (if that will even be a model in the future rather than online subscriptions like academic journals are already) when 10 or more users request it. Fewer and fewer shelves would be required, meaning BRANCH LIBRARIES would be worse than redundant: they would be a waster of $12 million dollars.

Better to spend that money on a new LEED certified sustainable library building with a DRIVE THROUGH PICK UP and DROP OFF, free parking, and up to date fiber optic cable for the fastest possible Internet speed and bandwidth, top of the line HVAC systems, better ambience with more natural light, and up-to-date and additional features the residents could really use that don’t exist anywhere else. For example, music recording equipment and Photoshop and video editing software on fast and powerful computers. Maybe even some sewing machines and Project Runway styled “maker space” activities. Language labs would be greatly beneficial, including American Sign Language.

All of these activities are supported by the collection. Lecturers and local authors would have a better space to come to give talks on their work, and other people and groups could use an auditorium-style room rather than the glaring cheap fluorescent lit and fold up chairs that haven’t changed since 1950.

Branch libraries make sense for much larger cities. One branch library will not improve access to library collections very much at all, and will carry heavy costs.

Bookmobiles make the most sense to bring the library to the users that cannot or do not come to the main library for whatever reasons now.










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