Whether they wanted to check out books about dinosaurs, listen to the strum of a guitar played by a library staff member, or simply get a break from the summer heat, Des Moines citizens flocked to the library’s bookmobiles. What began in 1937 as a trailer full of library materials has evolved and changed throughout the decades to bring library access to the people of Des Moines when they can’t make it to the physical buildings.
Outreach vehicles have been a mainstay of the Des Moines Public Library for 85 years. Beginning in 1937, a trailer fitted with shelves of books visited neighborhood gatherings twice a week. This trailer appeared at anything from elementary schools to community buildings, even offices and city playgrounds.
In 1946, the first true mobile library was created from a refurbished federal ordnance plant bus, and by 1958, a fleet of three thirty-five-foot, air-conditioned libraries on wheels were traversing the Des Moines neighborhoods. Each bookmobile held around 4,200 books, and in 1963 alone, nearly 323,00 books were circulated through the bookmobile program accounting for 25% of the total library circulation and 36% of youth circulation.
Unfortunately, the last of these bookmobiles ceased operation in Des Moines by 1981 due to budget constraints and the construction of more physical branches. The bookmobiles were sold and repurposed. One bookmobile was sold to the Sioux City Library, one to the City of Des Moines police department as a crime prevention unit, and one sent by the Des Moines Sister City commission to Naulcalpan, Mexico.
As bookmobiles were being phased out, other outreach vehicles took their place. The Wee Pals Outreach Bookmobile began its route in 1971. With a cartoon cast of characters painted on the side by Morrie Turner, the Wee Pals bookmobile visited preschools and community centers throughout the city bringing programs to citizens who couldn’t make it to the physical buildings. By 1973, the Wee Pals bookmobile was replaced with Rosie, the multi-media outreach van. The Rosie van was packed with books, movies, projectors, and storytelling props and made over 150 visits per month to community centers, senior citizens residences, the Polk County jail, and other locations to provide free material from the library. Another van, known as Carrie, was used to transport individuals and groups to the Mid-City Library. It was a yellow fourteen-passenger van. You couldn’t miss it.
Though the Carrie van is no longer in service, an iteration of the Rosie van is still running. It even got a major renovation in 2021 and is back on the road now.