Words on Wheels Distributes Books by Bikes

Library outreach in Alameda hits the road by trike with a stylish new bikemobile crisscrossing the Island.


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Alameda librarians are eager to pedal their books around the Island.

Photo by Chris Duffey

Who says there is no try? There’s a spectacular new “tri” in town—the Alameda Free Library’s new “Words on Wheels” bookmobile tricycle. If you haven’t seen the pedal-powered book buggy yet, it won’t be long, weather permitting.

“The main goal is to get people thinking about the library and aware of the library,” Eva Volin, supervising children’s librarian, said. The staff brainstormed ideas for taking books outside of the physical library somehow, and the idea popped up. Grants from Target and Alameda’s Rotary Club made it possible to get the project on the road, so to speak.

The book-trike might just remind you of the ice-cream man of olden days. “It’s a tricycle, slightly different than a two-wheeler. It takes a little practice. You’re pushing the box; it doesn’t feel heavy,” Volin said. Besides which, “Alameda’s flat. How could we possibly not do that?” Alameda’s bike lanes and safety awareness were also pluses.

“If ever a community was designed for a book bike, it’s Alameda,” agreed Jane Chisaki, library director. “Words on Wheels is our environmentally friendly way to get out and change the image of a traditional bookmobile.”

The $1,000 custom bike is American-made by Haley Tricycles, and such trikes are a Haley specialty. Haley has made similar bookmobiles for the Los Angeles Public Library and the Pima County Public Library, as well as freelance bookmobiles in Chicago and elsewhere. Alameda Bicycle will perform tune-ups and repairs as needed. New York Times-bestselling graphic novelist Raina Telgmeier donated the artwork for the front of the book box.

The tricycle has a tablet, scanner, and Bluetooth capabilities, as long as Wi-Fi is nearby. And the librarian onboard can check books in or out and issue new library cards. The bookmobile librarian can’t collect fines or fees (drivers carry no cash); at this point, the bookmobile doesn’t carry around books on reserve or on hold. The box holds more than 350 books, dedicated to the bookmobile. The grants also covered locks, helmets, and a bike umbrella.

“The bike will allow the library to extend services by delivering books, information, library cards, and so much more to the community. We think everyone will fall in love with Words on Wheels,” Chisaki said.

“I saw it in the library and got excited as I realized what it is—it looks like an old milk delivery cart or something like that. My son wanted to climb on it,” Gillian Gillette, an Alameda homeschooling mom and writer, said. “A few days later, we saw it down on Park Street and Central Avenue. I got excited again, because it’s a pretty cool bike, and I love books.”

Although the winter months may keep Words on Wheels under shelter, plans are to have a regular book-bike schedule at the farmers markets, street fairs, and local sites. Classrooms and senior centers are not out of the question, Volin said; the width of the tricycle is ADA-compliant, so if the doorway is up to code, the trike can come in.

For now, the librarians may have to thumb-wrestle to see who gets to ride it next. “We all want to try it,” said Volin. “It’s really fun.”

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