Programming-mobile: One Rural Library System’s Attempt to Engage Underserved Teens & Children

Marion County, South Carolina is rural and fairly spread out. The Marion County Library System relies heavily on bookmobile services to reach patrons in some of the farthest corners of the county and those who live in underserved areas. However, in recent years, bookmobile usage has begun to decline, especially among young adults and children, and the disparity between branch and bookmobile services has widened.  This inequality of access is most apparent during summer reading.

Patrons who only receive bookmobile service are encouraged to track their reading and receive prizes during the summer months, but they do not receive any programming and our time with them is very limited. During Summer Reading 2018, however, the library system was given an incredible opportunity—turning the bookmobile into a programming-mobile.

With a Summer Learning Grant from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation and YALSA, we were able to turn our bookmobile into a programming machine for the summer months and give some of the bookmobile children the full library experience!

The bookmobile routes are extensive—each month bookmobile drivers Jean Townsend (pictured on the right) and Ronda Bain (pictured in the middle) visit eleven different communities in the county. These routes also include stops that are strictly delivery as areas of the county are so very rural. So, we were unfortunately not able to provide all of the children who receive bookmobile services with programming. In order to reach as many children as possible, Jean, Ronda, and I chose to test our programming-mobile idea in six local low income housing developments in two different towns. The six developments were chosen for low bookmobile usage rates.

Our original plans included visiting each development for one hour. We would visit three developments per outing, and we would go on two outings a month. In June, we were going to use the outings to introduce the children to library services, bookmobile services, and to give out prizes and snacks. In July, we were going to do a program taste testing, so that the children could see what kind of fun the library could be. However, almost none of these plans worked out the way we had hoped, and we very quickly learned that flexibility was going to be key.

On our very first outing, the three of us met at the main branch excited and eager for the kids to hear about all of the fun stuff we had planned for the summer. It took us an hour to load the bookmobile with all of the necessary supplies, get to the first location, and set up. When the program was over, we reloaded everything into the bookmobile, drove to the next location, unloaded it, repeated the program, and reloaded the bookmobile again.  By time we had done all of this on the first day, we were out of time.  Luckily, the staff were very forgiving of our miscalculation, and we were able to work in an extra outing each month and still visit all six developments.

Another part of our plan that did not work as well as expected was to do the same program at each of the locations each month. Each development was very different in its needs—for instance, one location was very small and we could reach everyone from one set up, but the next location would be massive and we would have to set up in different spots throughout. The first month really became a learning experience, and even though we somewhat failed at our plan, it was a successful failure.

We had so many kids come out! This was surprising and exciting for us, because these locations were chosen for low usage rates. However, the first month alone we saw 108 people, which is more than we have ever had! However, there was some concern that the success was only temporary.

In July, we planned to do playdoh sculptures with the children, but we knew that this would not work everywhere. So, we also came prepared for field day activities—bowling, chalk, jump ropes, bubbles, etc.

We maintained 75 participants! Though what made us feel the most successful was how happy the kids looked to see us. In almost every location, they would come running and wanted to know when we would be back.  It will take time to see if the increase in bookmobile usage lasts, but we are so grateful to have had this opportunity and confident that we can keep the momentum going.

Holly Evans is the Youth Services Librarian and Interim Director of the Marion County Library System in Marion, SC. She received her Master of Library Science degree from the University of South Carolina, and her undergraduate degree in English from Coker College.

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