Mobile libraries have traditionally provided a service to rural or urban areas where there is no static library nearby. Customers can now access timetables of mobile stops online as well as reserving items by browsing the online catalogue. Accessibility is made easier with ramp access for wheelchair users and those who cannot manage steps. A library van can accommodate about 3,000 items of stock, including fiction, non-fiction, large print, audio books and children’s books. Visits may be weekly or monthly.
Various professional library bodies paint a rather rosy picture of mobile libraries on their websites. For example: “Bookmobiles in particular hold a distinctive charm. There’s something to be said for getting a visit from a mobile library squashed delightfully full with books. It’s like the magical wonder of an ice cream truck appearing around the block when you were a kid (only better). Mobile libraries have the opportunity to plant a garden of library resources directly into the community.”
My experience of the reality in the 1960s is somewhat different.
September 1963. I’d left school two months earlier with eight ‘O’ levels under my belt but absolutely no idea what I was going to do next. My English teacher, doubling up as careers advisor, suggested I might enjoy working in libraries. He encouraged me to apply to the Manchester Libraries school leavers’ training scheme.
On 9 September I turned up at the Central Library, an iconic building in St Peter’s Square, along with a bunch of other gauche teenagers. After an initial briefing we were assigned to various branch libraries. I was sent to Gorton Library on Cambert Lane. Our weekly rotas included time spent on the two mobile libraries, grandly named ‘Travelling East’ and ‘Travelling North’.
Travelling into the unknown
A lone library assistant was driven out to the suburbs of Manchester in the cab with the detachable library van towed behind. Sometimes, if there were several stops during the day, the driver stayed, but, more often, the driver detached the cab (which I now know was a Scammell Scarab), hooked up the library van to an electricity supply on the street and abandoned a sixteen-year-old to fend for themselves. This felt very scary. I was nervous about being left alone particularly in areas undergoing slum clearance where there were few houses nearby.
The van had two doors, supposedly an entrance and an exit but this was largely ignored by the users. There was a small counter area between the doors, which is where I cowered. There was a chemical toilet in a cubicle at the rear and this was also where the electric kettle was housed. No thought of hygiene or health and safety!
At some stops we parked up and then had our lunch or tea break. This was never a quiet half hour as people knocked on the door to attract our attention.
At the end of a shift, you had to make your way home from whichever far-flung part of Manchester you’d been sent. This was particularly difficult if you had been on the evening shift, closing at 8pm on dark winter nights. My journey home would often take well over an hour using ponderous trolley buses. Standing at unfamiliar bus-stops on cold dark winter nights was also rather frightening as I was never sure which bus to catch to take me home.
The two sites I particularly remember were Newton Heath and Ancoats.
Newton Heath, East Manchester
Back in the mid-60s, Newton Heath was undergoing regeneration. Streets of terraced housing had been demolished but nothing had yet taken its place.
Shirley Baker, a Salford photographer, was capturing the scenes of desolation at the time. The library stop was on a cobbled street without a house to be seen for over half a mile. Consequently, I saw few customers.
On one occasion a group of travellers had parked their caravans next to the library site and hooked themselves up to the power supply! I’ve forgotten how I coped that day but I do remember their children running in and out of the van, sweeping armfuls of books onto the floor.
Ancoats, inner Manchester
Ancoats was known as the world’s first industrial suburb. After the demise of the cotton mills in the 1930s it went into economic decline. By the 60s, there had been a great deal of slum clearance and the area became notorious for its deprivation and crime levels.
Just the kind of place to send a defenceless teenager! I dreaded seeing Ancoats on my rota, particularly on the evening shift till 8pm.
One evening, I was alone, checking my watch every few minutes, willing the hands to move more quickly. Two big lads stomped up the steps pulling a large Alsatian behind them. I timidly asked them to leave saying “Dogs aren’t allowed in the library.”
“What are you goin’ ter do about it?” they retorted. One of them leaned over the counter, grabbed the date stamp and stamped all over my hand. Then, to my surprise and relief, they left.
It could have been so much worse; I could have literally been ‘the body in the library’. It left me very shaken. I was terrified they might be lying in wait for me as I locked up. I ran like the wind to the bus-stop and was grateful to see others awaiting the 219 trolley bus.
My father was furious when I told him what had happened. He wrote a stiff letter to the City Librarian to complain about young people being left alone in such circumstances. I don’t remember my father receiving any reply and the practice of leaving lone females on duty on the mobile libraries continued for some time. A friend who was working there in 1965, two years later, told me that nothing had changed. I left Manchester Libraries soon afterwards, having found a library post nearer to home.
Gorton’s horrifying legacy
It was only later that I learned that the “Moors Murderers” – Myra Hindley and Ian Brady –had been living together in Gorton at the time I was working there. Their first known victim, 16-year-old Pauline Reade, was murdered in July 1963. She was living in Gorton when she was abducted by Hindley and Brady.
Keith Bennett, aged 12 and also from Gorton, disappeared on 16 June 1964. John Kilbride, another victim, was abducted from Ashton under Lyne Market Ground on 23 November 1963. My bus home, after shifts on the mobile library, deposited me at Ashton Market.
Mobile libraries are valuable
After working on the mobile libraries in Manchester, I did continue to work in libraries. The experience had not deterred me. I went to college, five years after leaving school, to study to become a Chartered Librarian. During my two years at The College of Librarianship in Aberystwyth, I had two periods of practical work experience.
One of these was working in Dorset County Libraries for six golden weeks in the summer of 1970. Here I had a much more positive experience of working on a mobile library. The library van had four or five stops a day, in pretty villages or by the coast, where you were often met with a tray of coffee and biscuits or homemade cake. The driver stayed with you, which gave you an added sense of security. Those were idyllic days. The stops were often just for an hour; there were no long periods of boredom. The customers would be waiting for you and would be pleased to see you. I was more mature and because of the driver being alongside, I was able to relax into my role more readily and chat with customers about books and reading.
Many library services still have a mobile library service, both in rural areas such as Cornwall and urban areas such as Birmingham. Considering so many libraries have closed completely (800 libraries have closed since 2010) this is a cheering thought. In 2014-2015, visits to libraries topped attendance to Premier League football games, the cinema, and the country’s top ten tourist attractions combined.
Access to books is of paramount importance, particularly for children who may not have books at home and for the housebound. Although I did not have a good experience of working on a mobile library, mobile libraries are still providing a valuable service: bringing books to the reader.