Arriving by camel in remote areas of Mongolia or on boat along the coast of Norway, contemporary libraries are often mobile, creative, and community-driven, and are adapting rather than fading with the rise of electronic books and decrease in budgets. Improbable Libraries: A Visual Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Libraries by Alex Johnson, published last month by the University of Chicago Press, celebrates some of the more surprising libraries transporting books to readers across desert, jungle, water, and road.
“Librarians have a long history of overcoming geographic, economic, and political challenges to bring the written word to an eager audience, they continue to live up to that reputation today, despite the rapid, sweeping changes in how we read and share books in the 21st century,” Johnson writes in an introduction. He also emphasizes that “[t]he vast majority of the smaller libraries in this book owe their existence to a single person, a ‘librarian’ with an unstoppable vision.”
Artist and activist Raúl Lemesoff drives the streets of Argentina in his “Weapon of Mass Instruction,” a 1979 Ford Falcon converted to look like an armored tank sheathed in bookshelves. In Colombia, school teacher Luis Soriana started Biblioburro and travels to rural areas with two donkeys named Alfa and Beto. And for two decades now Jambyn Dashdondog has been riding a camel (and sometimes a horse, cow, or reindeer) to remote regions of Mongolia as part of his Mongolian Children’s Mobile Library. Before all of them, Johnson notes, Mary Titcomb of the Washington County Free Library in Maryland started a horse-drawn library program in 1905, one of the first “animal libraries” to rely on a furry collaborator for affordable transportation on uneven ground.
Johnson, a British journalist, has two librarians for parents, and back in 2012 he published Bookshelf, a tome centered on bookcases. The square-shaped hardcover Improbable Libraries is definitely a labor of love for literature, and offers a global perspective on how essential access to books is in bringing communities vibrancy and education. It’s engaging to flip through the pages and discover unexpected projects like Big Brother Mouse in Laos, where an elephant transports books into remote communities, the Epos ship that travels the western coast of Norway with a cargo of 6,000 books, and South America’s Bibliotaxi, where books dangle in sleeves from the driver’s seat, and can be signed out in a notebook and returned to any vehicle in the system. The Think Differently Book Exchange in Canterbury, New Zealand, has free lending libraries installed in sites left vacant by the 2010 earthquake, one holding the books in an old refrigerator. And in Magdeburg, Germany, an open-air library open 24 hours a day is installed on the site of a defunct district library, with covered seating on the street designed as a gathering space.
Almost all these libraries are free, and without membership, and it’s the passion of the people involved that keeps them going. Last month the New York Times reported that between 2006 and 2014 New York City budgeted at least $620 million for new stadiums for the Yankees and Mets and the Barclays Center, which is a third more than the city’s $453 million budget for libraries over the same period, even though they serve seven times more people in a year than the sports stadiums. New York’s case is just one in a long history of library funding issues, and while the DIY and individual-driven libraries Johnson highlights are inspiring, it’s also essential that he locates them in the contemporary context of why they are needed in places underserved or ignored by institutions.
Improbable Libraries: A Visual Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Libraries by Alex Johnson is available from the University of Chicago Press.