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Taking it to the Streets: Bookmobiles and Brooklyn

Jun 29, 2011 11:54 AM | 1 comment

It is a happy day for public libraries across the city!  Another nerve-wracking round of budget negotiations has come to a close, with the city of New York restoring record amounts of funding to the New York Public Library, Queens Public Library, and our very own Brooklyn Public Library.  After months of tireless advocacy efforts by library staff and supporters, this celebratory moment seems an opportune time to put our feet up, munch on some popcorn, and think back on the good work we do here.  Roll the clip!

This film, Who Grows in Brooklyn, is part of the Brooklyn Collection's 16mm film collection, which was in recent years transferred to DVD format for preservation.  All the films are available for viewing in the Brooklyn Collection, and, not surprisingly, cover a range of topics relating to our borough, from a tutorial on the quintessential Brooklyn bagel to a neighborhood's homage to one of its most famous residents, Barbra Streisand

But enough about the film collection -- what I really want to talk about today is the rolling library that trolls the streets looking for ravenous readers -- the bookmobile!  Brooklyn Public Library started offering bookmobile service in 1951, with its "Library-On-Wheels".  This souped-up truck was outfitted with the barebones accoutrements of a regular branch library -- shelves, books, a circulation desk, librarians, clerks -- along with a new addition to the staff: a driver.  An article in the September, 1957 issue American Library Association's newsletter ALA Bulletin, "Reaching Out: bookmobile service in Brooklyn", provides an in-depth breakdown of the specifications of Brooklyn's mobile library: "The bookmobile itself is 27 feet long, 8 feet wide, and weighs 21,500 pounds.  The shelves can conveniently carry 2,500 books." 

An early 1950s shot of the first Brooklyn Public Library bookmobile.  Due to high demand, a second bus was put into service in 1952.

The bookmobiles' mission was to reach those Brooklynites who lived beyond a half-mile radius of any of the 55 regular branch libraries, and neighborhoods with populations below 50,000.  As detailed in the ALA Bulletin article, the bookmobile stopped at two types of locations -- community hubs and schools.  A typical day saw the bookmobile visiting one to three locations for a few hours at a time, with each stop scheduled to maximize the number of visitors the bookmobile could host.  The bus would visit schools during the mornings, scheduling periods for each teacher to bring in students, and stop outside housing projects or shopping centers in the afternoon and evening to give workers and families a chance to drop off and pick up books.

In the days before the Coney Island library branch, kindergartners from P.S. 188 relied on weekly visits from the bookmobile.  The library-on-wheels made this stop at the Gravesend Houses every Tuesday from 10:00 to 11:50 during the 1950s. 

A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from October 18, 1953, reported that Brooklyn's bookmobiles lent out 252,323 books and traversed 6,600 miles of Brooklyn streets in 1952.  The ALA Bulletin article states that at a busy stop, the average book circulation is 238 books per hour -- that's four books a minute, from one circulation desk.  A Brookyn Public Library News Bulletin article from that same period is less precise, but perhaps more compelling, "Books are more popular than pretzels, traveling carousels and ice cream with the youngsters of Glenwood, one of fifteen stops on the Brooklyn Public Library Library-On-Wheels schedules."  The list of areas served by the bookmobiles indicates how much the borough has changed in the past 60 years, as many neighborhood names have since fallen off the map: "March, Breukelen, Kingsboro, Gravesend, Coney Island, Homecrest, Sea View, Marlboro, Beach Haven, Bay View." 

More compelling than the library's self-promoting prose, I think, are these images from our photograph collection, which show the bookmobiles as a sort of pop-up town square -- wherever the buses stop, neighbors and families gather, supporting the idea that libraries play a vital role as centers for community.

One of the bookmobile driver's duties was crowd control.  According to Frankie Alfano, above, "Driving a cab was never like this!"

Even horses are welcome at the Library-on-Wheels!

Of course, some of my favorite images are those of Brooklyn's "youngsters" making use of the bookmobile.  In 1957, children's circulation accounted for 70 percent of the total in Brooklyn's bookmobiles.

Conscientious patrons, right and below, prepare their books to be returned to the bookmobile librarian.

As the photo's caption states, a "book discussion in the noonday rush."

Curbside story hour at Ave. U and E 14th St.

Lost in the stacks.

Bookmobile service continued through the 1960s and 1970s, albeit in varying forms.  In 1967 the service was outsourced, somewhat, to a company called the Bookmobile Service Trust, which worked in cooperation with the Brooklyn Public Library but was not staffed by library personnel.  According to a July 6, 1967 article in the New York Times, this new, "canary-yellow" truck served the borough in troubled times, making stops in "deprived areas where people have often been fearful because of neighborhood tensions to leave their immediate neighborhoods to visit libraries."  That contract, which provided three bookmobiles for Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, and East New York, ran out in 1971, when the city unexpectedly refused to renew the deal.  After that, the Brooklyn Public Library fully reshouldered the task of bringing books to underserved populations.  This period also benefitted from the blue-and-white Sidewalk Service vans, which operated much the same as the bookmobiles, albeit on a smaller scale.   

The Sidewalk Service van makes an appearance at Bay Ridge's Ragamuffin Parade, 1968.

The Brooklyn Public Library continues to offer bookmobile service to this day.  New trucks have been purchased periodically as older models are put to well-deserved pasture.  A Kidsmobile was introduced to the fleet in 2000 in an effort to link libraries and schools in closer partnership, and to provide library service at parks in the summertime.  In spring 2009, the library unveiled four brand new bookmobiles, which included the Bibliobus, New York City's very first Spanish-language traveling library.  Institutions and organizations throughout the borough can request to have any of Brooklyn's bookmobiles visit their location.  Carrying on a sixty-year tradition at the Brooklyn Public Library, these 29-foot mobile libraries continue to provide invaluable service to the people of Brooklyn and thanks to the budget restoration, we can keep them rolling all year long.

Brooklyn takes to the Skies. Part I

Jun 23, 2011 12:37 PM | 1 comment


         Mrs. Virginia Mullen - Miss Brooklyn Aviation 1947

By 1945 the World War II was winding down, and the population of Brooklyn had swelled to nearly 3 million residents, many of whom were eager to travel.  In this atmosphere the business and civic community decided to gauge the public's feelings about travel, especially air travel, and to see if the time was right for a new centrally-located state-of-the art Air-Rail-Bus Terminal, that would whisk passengers to their designated plane, train, bus or ship. 

Map showing distance of proposed Brooklyn Airlines Terminal from the airports

"If God had intended men to fly, he'd make it easier to get to the airport"

This quote by George Winters pretty much sums up the popular sentiment of the day.   Getting to any of the major transportation departure points, especially the airport, was a test of endurance, requiring a Job-sized supply of patience. 

         First, most people had to take a trolley to the subway...

 Then get on the subway and take that to Manhattan...

      and then get to the airport, train station, bus-terminal...

 or dock. This roundabout...

loop-de-loop journey often took longer then the actual trip, leaving travellers exhausted.  

A year-long study was conducted in 1945 by the Bureau of Economic Research at Brooklyn College. The Bureau together with the Brooklyn Eagle polled more than 25,560 Brooklynites from all walks of life, income levels and professions.  Dr. Otto H. Ehrlich who led the study, along with a team of Brooklyn College students, analyzed the participants' responses and compiled them into a report as well as published articles in the Brooklyn Eagle.   

"We have traveled by air and find it a great convenience, but from Brooklyn it is most inconvenient and miserable to reach the airports."

As expected people overwhelmingly, at 94%, felt that a travel center was vital to the area and that they would save time and money alleviating the headache of traveling to Manhattan. In terms of population, Brooklyn would be the third largest city in the United States, and in no other small city in the country was getting to its transportation lines as difficult as it was for Brooklynites    

But the questionnaire also shed light on how the Borough's residents felt about other aspects of travel, and in particular, what would it take to get Brooklynites up in the air? 

Railroads were the first choice for people travelling on business. For leisure trips the automobile took the top spot, followed by railroads, airlines, steamships and buses. But people who had flown before overwhemingly chose air travel as their first choice. "I have traveled by air and nothing could induce me to give it up" wrote one participant.  Safety was a big concern for many people, and as airplane safety improved the public grew more confident. "The new planes now being built lead me to believe that safety in the air has been attained."  And as is the case with many inventions that are developed for military purposes, radar would soon be used for commercial travel. In fact, a physician suggested that "Planes be equipped with radar to detect the proximity of mountains and treetops."

                 Other inducements to fly were: 


             Parachutes for every passenger


  A motor under the plane to check the speed when falling



   Photo-illustration J.Koffi using Brooklyn Daily Eagle photograph  

              Lana Turner in a private cabin 

The responses reflected a population still sceptical, but slowly coming around to the safety and convenience of air travel. In a few short years the golden age of air travel would begin, and the borough's civic and business leaders wanted Brooklyn to be a part of it.  

In 1948 Brooklyn got its first airline booth located in the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn Heights.  Not exactly the grand terminal orginally imagined, but it was a beginning.

In Part II we'll take a look at the Brooklyn Air Terminal.  

Chris Webber talks about James W.C. Pennington, Fugitive Slave and Black Abolitionist. Tonight!

Jun 22, 2011 12:32 PM | 0 comments

Tonight, Wednesday June 22, 2011 in the Brooklyn Collection, second floor Central Library. Only the first 40 attendees will be seated. Tickets will be handed out at 6:30 P.M. and only people with tickets will be allowed in. This is a new method of preventing overcrowding in our small Reserve Room location. Refreshments will be served between 6:30 and 7 P.M.

New Eagle Online tutorial narrated by resident Brit

Jun 20, 2011 4:47 PM | 0 comments

How weird is that? A Brit showing people how to navigate the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online! I detect a northern twang. But do look for more Youtube tutorials coming soon on all aspects of the Brooklyn Collection's web offerings--to be narrated in a rich variety of voices.

From the annals of Brooklyn's musical history: BAM in the early 1930s

Jun 15, 2011 12:52 PM | 0 comments

Stars of the musical firmament blazed over Brooklyn during the concert seasons from 1930 to 1934 in concerts arranged under the auspices of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, which at that time included the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Sergei Rachmaninoff, Fritz Kreisler, Paul Robeson, tenor Roland Hayes, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, and pianists Walter Gieseking, Robert Goldsand and Jose Iturbi all performed at BAM, as did Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger, by then a naturalized American living in White Plains. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle files hold photographs of many of these performers, not always from their earliest appearances.

This image from 1947 shows a later incarnation of the Fiske Jubilee singers, a group that was formed in 1872 to support the formation of Fiske University.

Rachmaninoff had left Russia after the Revolution of 1917 and made his home in the United States. The great composer and pianist, whose works were banned in Russia, gave an annual concert at BAM for several years.

Fritz Kreisler also made his home in the United States during the later years of World War I and again after the outbreak of WW II. A fat file of photographs of Kreisler and his wife bears witness to many concerts in Brooklyn and New York.

In the 1930s Walter Gieseking was still a relatively young pianist, drawing notice for his talent rather than his politics. This 1949 photograph shows protesters  demanding the cancellation of a Carnegie Hall Concert. Accused of having a pro-Nazi record, the pianist left the country the following day.

Fresh from a triumph on the London stage as Othello, Robeson captivated audiences in Brooklyn and around the world. The Bulletin of the Brooklyn Institute published  two appreciations of his career preparatory to the concert of January 19, 1931,  writing appreciatively of him as "scholar, athlete, actor, singer and gentleman. A career of accomplishement by a man of simplicity."

Roland Hayes gave a recital at BAM on November 28, 1930. The Bulletin of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences wrote of him, "This negro tenor has found a subtlety in voice shading which begins where others leave off. He can produce a tone of utter loveliness...And these achievements he uses to express the human emotions which lie in a song, with a poignancy and yet with a fine restraint which holds his audience marveling."

Still a young prodigy when he played at BAM in th early 1930s, Goldsand later immigrated to the U.S. and taught for many years at the Manhattan School of Music.

But out of all of these, it is Percy Grainger who seems to have entered Brooklyn's social life with the greatest enthusiasm.

Grainger is little known today except as the author of slightly dated popular classics such as "Shepherd's Hey" and "English Country Garden." In fact he was an important collector of English folk songs and a world-famous pianist as well as a noted composer and arranger. During the 1920s and 30s he was a regular performer in the New York City area, and so it should come as no surprise that he made his way over the East River into Brooklyn more than once. Startlingly good-looking, with red hair and finely-chiselled features, Grainger must have cut quite a figure on the concert platform. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle kept two attractive photographs of him on file, as well as two of his wife.

Carnegie Hall and the Aeolian Hall were frequent venues, but in May of 1931 Grainger and his wife were invited to the home of the Tollefsens for an evening of private music-making. Carl Tollefsen, of Norwegian ancestry, shared a passionate interest in Scandinavian music with Grainger, and on that evening soprano Astrid Fjelde sang a group of Scandinavian songs. Later, Grainger joined the trio in performances of his own works--Colonial Song; Handel in the Strand and Spoon River.

There was a dark side to Grainger's personality that is hinted at in his association with the Tollefsens. His belief in the superiority of the nordic race led him into the kind of racial bigotry and anti-Semitism that was broadly prevalent in the 1930s. He was, too, a sado-masochist who enjoyed nothing more than a good whipping. But unlike the press of today, the Eagle, so keen to list every single guest at the Tollefsen's soiree, appeared to have no interest in Grainger's private life.

Grainger also appeared as guest conductor with the Symphony Society of Brooklyn  at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on March 1, 1931, in a program  that included two of his own pieces, a Bach concerto for two violins and orchestra and Schubert's Seventh Symphony. In November of 1932, Grainger was guest artist of the Brooklyn Woman's Club in a program that included works by Grieg, Debussy, Chopin and Bach-Liszt.

Here is approximately what those Brooklyn Woman's Club concert goers might have heard 80 years ago: Grainger himself playing a Liszt transcription of a Bach organ prelude and fugue