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Virginia Libraries

Current editors:
Beth DeFrancis defrancb@georgetown.edu, Editor
John Connolly jpconnolly@crimson.ua.edu, Assistant Editor

April-June, 2001
Volume 47, Number 2

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There and Back Again, Or, Building a Better Bookmobile

by Mike Hatchett

The time had come, the time was now, to build a new bookmobile, but HOW, HOW, HOW?? The air conditioner was shot, the brakes were coming loose, we felt like we were driving something straight out of Dr. Suess. For fifteen long years we'd been driving that heap, now was the time to put her to sleep. (Actually our vehicle was transferred to the fire department to be refurbished as a mobile command post.)

At times, building our bookmobile had a lot in common with a Dr. Suess book. We started our project in late winter of 1998. We knew we were going to get a new bookmobile, thanks to the hard work of our administration and the commitment of our board of supervisors, who saw the continued need for outreach service in our largely suburban community.

We took this opportunity to brainstorm like crazy, visit several other bookmobile operations, and familiarize ourselves with the leading bookmobile vendors. We all recognized the unique opportunity we were given: the chance to design a vehicle from the bottom up that would support our service roles of reading readiness and recreational reading. We operate a seventy-two stop biweekly schedule that emphasizes service to day-cares, retirement communities, and nursing homes. We currently provide storytimes to thirty-three day-cares, so a storytime area was essential. Visiting twenty-one retirement communities meant we had to be concerned with issues that affected our senior patrons as well, such as accessibility, lighting, and collection arrangement.

We also needed to consider the needs of our staff; after all, we sometimes spend ten hours a day out on the road. Work flow and ergonomic concerns were therefore priorities. Technology was taken into consideration. We wanted access to electronic re-sources, not just our automated circulation system and catalog but also the vast resources that were available to us through the Internet. And finally, what about color schemes for shelving, carpets, seat fabrics, and wall coverings? Don't forget those exterior graphics. How about the generator? We could never forget the generator, could we?

Well, we were very lucky; most of our technical specifications were taken care of by our county automotive maintenance staff. Don't allow yourself to get overwhelmed by the details, get help wherever you can and borrow expertise. We couldn't tell you the difference between a Cummings or a Caterpillar 3126B, but our folks at Central Maintenance had definite opinions. Our suggestion is to look at as many bid documents and spec sheets as you can. Some state libraries maintain these kinds of documents and most vendors are willing, even eager, to share what they have on file.

The ability to farm out technical details will free your staff to concentrate on what you know best, which in our case was vehicle layout. After all, we know our patrons' needs and the services the vehicle will ultimately provide. Our brainstorming sessions yielded several significant changes from the old bookmobile:

  1. We designed a children's area in the rear of the vehicle that featured tiered bench seating (with storage under one of the benches), a built in TV/VCR, and a large bulletin board that took up the entire rear of the bookmobile. We've always had the children come aboard the bookmobile, but with this new specially designed area we felt the whole storytime experience would be enhanced.
  2. One door. I can almost hear the groans, but for us one large, wide, well-lit door was better than the two small narrow doors on the old vehicle. Steep stairwells are the biggest danger areas on most bookmobiles. Removing one of these areas cut our risk factors in half and it allowed us to allocate space more effectively. Frankly, the single forty-four inch Bodie door is much more welcoming, safer, and easier for young and old alike to negotiate. The stairs are wide and not as steep as those on the old bookmobile.
  3. Raised headroom. The extra eight inches makes all the difference.
  4. Stand-up work desks. In fifteen years of bookmobile work, I've never sat at a desk out on the road. We raised the desks, put a bookdrop with storage space on one side, and a built-in computer workstation on the other. Since we don't sit at the desks this removed the need to have the driver and passenger seats swivel. Instead they slide forward to give us more room behind the desk and lots of elbowroom.
  5. Storage under the shelves. We preselect our day-care materials and carry them in canvas bags that slide neatly under the shelves, keeping them out of everyone's way.
  6. Loading port. We are lucky enough to have a garage and loading dock off of our office. In the past we loaded through the back door using a plank. We now have a port located to the right rear of the vehicle to load and_ unload materials.

While the library staff primarily worked on the interior layout, we were also given ample opportunity to provide input in many other areas of design and construction. Our major point of interest, at least preliminarily, was the generator. While our old generator was acceptable early on, in later years it was extremely prone to breakdown. And it was loud! To replace our "clatterbox," we chose a 10.0 kw Onan Quiet Diesel, Commercial. It is so quiet, we sometimes forget it's on, and it has very little vibration.

Exterior graphics are important. Or not. In our case, we wanted to jazz up the current graphic scheme, maintain a link to our old bookmobile, convey an excitement about our future services, and provide a nice PR punch for the rest of the library system. We had to walk that fine line, as many bookmobiles do, between providing adult and children's services out of the same vehicle. We wanted the bookmobile to be bright and cheerful, but we didn't want to shout "KIDDIEMOBILE." eWe think we achieved a nice compromise. When selecting graphics, bear in mind cost and long term utility. Using popular characters or contemporary themes can date a vehicle before its time.

Climate control is essential to patron and staff comfort. Heaters are fairly standard, as are air conditioners-just remember to specify that you want low profile units to reduce height constraints. The type, size, a and placement of mirrors should also be considered. We were surprised that our new mirror arrangement added almost six inches to our total length, an important consideration when backing into an already tight garage.

Depending upon governmental regulations, the bid/RFP process can be long and complicated. Our bid went out in July, closed at the end of August, and was awarded October 1998. The winning bid was $131,975 and the final cost was just a little more. We were to expect delivery within 270 calendar days; however, that didn't happen. Delays are part of the building process and should be taken into consideration when planning collateral events. We experienced an unusually long delivery lag because of several factors including a backlog in chassis and transmission production and, more importantly, the takeover and reorganization of our vendor.

During the building process we had numerous telephone, fax, and e-mail contacts with our vendor. As vital as those contacts were, the onsite visits were key to our project's success. A total of four visits were made and every one of them was necessary to iron out problems including fabric selections, desk placement, and even computer wiring issues. We cleared up as many issues on the last visit as on the first. If possible, I strongly suggest that every staff member visit the vendor during the building process, preferably together as a team.

After eighteen months of ups, downs, and all arounds, the bookmobile was delivered on 15 February 2000. The arrival of the new bookmobile was actually a beginning rather than an ending. But, that's a different story.

In conclusion, we would like to offer a few tips that might help others who are about to design or build a new vehicle:

  1. Gather as much information as possible.
  2. Utilize staff and patron input.
  3. Realize that no bid document is perfect. Things get overlooked, no matter how many sets of eyes read the document. If possible, budget for change orders.
  4. Communicate your ideas and concepts clearly in writing, with drawings, and face-to-face.
  5. Ensure that your vehicle is wired for computers, telephones, and other technologies as needed. The wiring must be certified by the vendor before delivery.
  6. If you have cabinets specially designed to hold equipment, require the vendor to show you the equipment installed prior to delivery.
  7. Inspect the vehicle from all angles. Often when staff visit the vehicle, it is in a garage, so it can only be viewed up close. Have the bookmobile moved out to where it can be completely inspected.
  8. Measure twice. And again.
  9. Build the cost of your onsite visits into the bid. Be sure to include transportation, lodgings, and meals. We recommend at least four visits.
  10. If you don't think you are hearing from your vendor often enough, you're not. Call at least once a week to check on progress. Some vendors are helpful, some are more helpful. Don't look for them to go out of their way to offer solutions. No one looks out for you better than you do. Your project is your priority, not theirs.
  11. No one vehicle is perfect for every situation. Develop a bookmobile that reflects your mission and patron needs.

For our staff, building the bookmobile was a dream come true. It was frustrating at times, but in the end we got a vehicle that is attractive, supports our mission, and will be reliable for years to come.


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