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Bookmobile brings library to rural communities across Minnesota

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Cate Maki, 4, piles on more books as her mom, Heather, gets help checking them out from bookmobile assistant Janet Hougas. Maki, who lives in rural Minnesota, relies on the regular visits from bookmobile for reading material and videos. Bob King / Forum News Service2 / 4
William Maki, 9, of Goodland is engrossed in a book about jokes he found in the bookmobile library. Bob King / Forum News Service3 / 4
Heather Maki leaves the bookmobile with her children (from left) Bella, 7; William, 9 (hidden) and Cate, 4, carrying a bag filled with books the kids picked out. Bob King / Forum News Service4 / 4

GOODLAND — Heather Maki's three kids went straight for the children's books lining the lowest bookshelves.

The children's stack grew on the Bookmobile's checkout counter, with a few DVDs mixed in, and Maki reminded the kids that they could check out only a couple of books each. Despite the limit, Maki's large cloth bag still strained to contain all of their finds after Bookmobile assistant Janet Hougas checked out their items.

The Maki family visits the Arrowhead Library System's Bookmobile nearly every time it stops in Goodland, an Itasca County community of about 460 people. Heather Maki said her kids enjoy visiting the Bookmobile and she has to limit how many items they're able to check out; the week before, they had 82 items checked out. She explained that in addition to the Bookmobile, they use the Arrowhead Library System's Mail-a-Book program, which rural residents can use to order books to be mailed to their home from a system catalog.

"This is very convenient for us because we only get to town about once a week," Maki said. "We make good use of the rural library services."

The Bookmobile visited Goodland for 45 minutes on March 7, sitting in the parking lot at Fred's, a gas station and meat shop, on State Highway 65. Goodland was one of seven stops on and near the Iron Range that day, which began when Hougas and Bookmobile driver Ted Lewis left the Bookmobile's Mountain Iron office at 7 a.m. They were expecting to get back to the office at 8:30 p.m. that day.

Above the Bookmobile's shelves, signs declare "Libraries are for everyone," and for more than 50 years, the Bookmobile has traversed the Northland to bring the public library to rural communities that don't have a brick-and-mortar library.

At one time, the Arrowhead Library System had five Bookmobiles on the road. Today, one Bookmobile spends upwards of 12 hours a day on the road with 66 stops in St. Louis, Carlton, Koochiching and Itasca counties. On one day of the Bookmobile's schedule, the staff drives two hours to reach the first stop of the day.

But without the Bookmobile, rural areas of the Northland wouldn't have access to a library. The Bookmobile helps fill the gaps within the Arrowhead Library System's large, rural seven-county service area, for a total of $300,000 of the agency's $2.1 million budget, said Jim Weikum, the system's executive director.

Many of the Bookmobile's patrons are homeschool families and retired residents during the day, and parents with children after school. Staff members also hear that the Bookmobile stops serve as a social event where residents living in the more remote areas of the region can see each other, Weikum said.

"Certainly the value of getting library materials in the hands of people is very important, but on top of that, it's that social aspect. A physical library can serve as a community gathering spot and the Bookmobile, in these remoter areas, can often serve in that capacity, in getting people together who wouldn't normally be able to get together or have a reason to get together," Weikum said.

The current Bookmobile, in operation for 11 years, has 373,000 miles on it and will be retired to make way for a new Bookmobile later this year. The new Bookmobile is expected to be four feet longer, and have more items and more room for more people, Weikum said.

In an age when books and movies are readily available online, use of the Bookmobile is continuing to stay steady, largely due to the lack of broadband Internet in much of Northeastern Minnesota, Weikum said.

"It's nice to assume that everybody out in the country has Internet and they have computers and things like that, but the reality is a little bit different," he said.

'A little bit on everything'

Hougas, who has worked for the Arrowhead Library System for seven years, said they try to offer a variety on the Bookmobile. In addition to fiction and nonfiction books, the Bookmobile carries music CDs, video games and audiobooks. Anyone with a library card from a Minnesota library system can check out a book from the Bookmobile.

"We're a little library, but we try to have just a little bit on everything so somebody can find something that they're interested in," Hougas said. "I choose the books based on a few things, like current and pop culture, popularity, popular authors, best sellers, and then we just need to have diversity on here. I try finding some unique items. I always get excited when I find something I haven't seen before."

Although the Bookmobile doesn't go out in the worst weather, days on the road can become long during winter in the Northland, Hougas said. She added, "The hours and the darkness and the cold is kinda rough, but the summers are nice."

In addition to the long days and becoming accustomed to driving a Bookmobile, roads can present a challenge, said Weikum, who began his career on a Bookmobile elsewhere in Minnesota.

"For us, a lot of the physical challenges are the places we go and the condition of the roads that they go on. We're in a lot of fairly remote, rural places that don't have the shiny smooth blacktop or concrete," Weikum said.

However, he noted, the Bookmobile staff is dedicated to going to the rural communities because it's rewarding to get library materials into the hands of residents.

"They really care a lot about making sure that they get service to people and provide people with the best service they possibly can. I'm pretty proud of their commitment to that," Weikum said.