In many communities, the public library is a well-recognized institution by adults and children alike. However, some libraries find their halls to be frequented only by a fraction of their community’s population, and are reaching out to increase their membership.

Last spring, the Evanston Public Library (EPL) in Illinois found a new way to cater to their patrons, looking to become more accessible by becoming mobile. Thanks to a donation from the Evanston Bicycle Club, the library acquired their book bike—a motorized bicycle that pulls a cart filled with books for patrons to check out. The bike is also equipped to provide library cards for those who do not have them, as well as the opportunity to register for upcoming programs at the EPL.

I interviewed Community Engagement Librarian Jill Skwerski, whose duties include driving the book bike across the city in the warmer months.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you face trying to increase membership/visits from members? On the bike specifically?

A: Evanston is a great town for biking, but some parts of town have narrow streets that don’t have any bike paths. The town is set on improving biking into the neighborhoods, but we did a good job of getting into the core neighborhoods within a two-mile radius of the library. The far south and west and north sides are harder to reach. A site I wanted to reach was a church with food distribution, but it’s difficult to bike to. Evanston is a busy suburb of Chicago—some side streets have speed bumps, some streets are too busy. We’re determined to hit those this year. The biggest challenge for me as community engagement librarian, and for the library as a whole, is being sure that we are providing the best possible library service to everyone in the community. There are always people [who] won’t come—either they physically can’t, or the library is not part of their lifestyle or culture—so we have to be sure that we do our best to get out into the neighborhoods and bring access to services in low access areas. We have to listen to what people need and respond appropriately—maybe it’s not story time, but technology training.

Q: Was there a specific demographic that responded better to the book bike?

A: Kids, absolutely! [They are] open to anything, so the bike was a smash with the younger crowd, especially when I brought the Mo Willems books. Adults tend to need library cards; my first patrons were a couple who had just moved [to Evanston]. It is exciting for kids, but a fair number of adults are thankful to meet me because they never get to the library, or never renewed their cards, and they can now access our online services.

Q: Was there a particular location that was most popular/successful?

A: The beaches! Everyone is down at the [Lake Michigan] lakefront in the summer. There is a bike path that runs through from one end to the other.

Q: How has the book bike been adapted for the colder seasons?

A: The book bike is on hiatus until warmer weather [arrives]—there’s no place where people naturally gather out of doors in winter. We’ll bring it out again around Memorial Day until about October.

Q: In a Chicago Tribune interview, you had mentioned ideas for updating the book bike to better accommodate your patrons. Have you made any of those changes yet?

A: The bike will have a closed lid that opens-up down the middle that can display materials or a laptop. A library board member is working on the modifications. We also plan to get a stool. We need it for the little ones, since there is a very deep basket [for them to reach into].

Q: What differences do you anticipate the modifications bringing in terms of how patrons respond to the bike?

A: They will be able to see from a distance that books are displayed and that the bike is not an ice cream truck!

Q: Are there any plans for expanding the program, such as a second bike?

A: My grand scheme is to have two bikes, though funding is always an issue. [I’m planning to reach out to Northwestern, to find] students to volunteer to ride bikes across town and hit our regular stopping points. [I’m working on a schedule so that we] can visit each neighborhood location.

Q: Are there any other programs/events you have planned to increase membership/visits that are coming up?

A: The book bike has been a great boon for bringing our services out into the neighborhoods and we’re looking forward to more successes. We’re hoping to get to the free lunch distribution in parks in the summer with every day service and also visit the food pantries and monthly produce mobile. Social media hopefully will also generate more interest; we can tweet out “Look for the book bike here at 2:00.” [Our pilot year was 2014], and it’s still a work in progress, so we’re figuring out [what will work better,] a set schedule or just getting everywhere we can.

Off book bike season, the EPL still has a great presence in Evanston. In addition to their main building, they also operate branches on the north and southwest sides of the city. When she’s not thinking up ideas outside the box (or, in this case, outside the bookshelves), Jill teaches computer classes to seniors and provides service to after school programs throughout the year.

Did You Know?

Last year, we covered library summer reading programs. The summer 2015 theme of the Illinois Reading Enrichment and Development (iRead) will be “Read to the Rhythm” and the Collaborative Summer Library Program (CSLP) is planning a summer of “Heroes.” Programs at public libraries are growing more and more creative every year, as librarians cater to the diverse interests of their patrons.

In Louisiana, the Rapides Parish Library branches have enacted an Adult Bingo Book Challenge that will run until March of 2015 to get more patrons in the door.