When Harold Goldstein of the University of Illinois wrote in 1961 that bookmobiles could be "no more than an ancillary arm of the main institutions, serving as long as better agencies are not available," he was proved right in most cases.
Bookmobiles in the Northwest suburbs mostly have been put to rest, three in the last two years alone, done in by the opening of branch libraries and the mechanical issues that can plague the vehicles.
However, after 39 years the bookmobile of the Arlington Heights Memorial Library is still going strong: It makes about 50 stops per month, carries 4,000 items and counts roughly 1,800 customers every month. Arlington Heights is one of six libraries that still operate bookmobiles in the area, next to Palatine, Cook Memorial in Libertyville, Warren-Newport in Gurnee, Skokie and Aurora.
What the bookmobile offers is proximity in more than one sense. Not only is it a library on wheels, it is also the place for personal contact -- to meet and chat with neighbors, other customers and the bookmobile staff.
"A lot of people are asking for recommendations," said Amy Henkels, who started working on the bookmobile three years ago and loves talking with customers, many of whom use it every time it makes a stop close to where they live.
Henkels herself has a history with the bookmobile, having been a regular visitor since she was a child.
Each month, the bookmobile stops at 29 places in Arlington Heights -- twice at most of them, and three or four times at a few. Stops are usually close to schools, parks, elderly homes or apartment complexes.
"At our busiest stops, we get 60 or 70 people within one hour," said bookmobile supervisor Teri Scallon.
She is one of three members of the library staff who acquired a special drivers license to be able to drive the bookmobile. They are supported by two other members, one of them Henkels, who sit in the back of the bus and help with checkouts.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the bookmobile stopped in front of Greens Park close to Olive-Mary Stitt School and it didn't take long for people to gather and step inside.
For Michele Bozikis, it was her first visit to the bookmobile. Her son Jake, 4, wanted to show it to her after friends took him along on a visit.
"Usually we go to the library once a week, but this time, we wanted to see the bookmobile," says Bozikis. And Jake does not leave empty-handed, choosing several books and Nintendo games to take home with him.
The bookmobile's offerings include DVDs, CDs and Nintendo games. The biggest section is the "latest and greatest" section that holds the newest books. The mobile library houses from almost any genre including kids, teen or cookbooks.
"He just walked in and his eyes widened," Liz Wojtkowski, 58, said of the first bookmobile visit by her 3-year-old grandson Tyler. While Tyler pulled out one children's book after the other to take home, his grandmother checked out a few DVDs for herself.
On the bookmobile, DVDs can be checked out for two weeks as opposed to the one-week-deadline at the main library. Checked-out items can be returned either when the bookmobile comes around again or at the main library. Customers can also place a hold on an item from the main library and staff will bring it out to them with the bookmobile.
"I just love it," Wojtkowski said.
Tanja Hamilton, 69, comes out every time the bookmobile stops at Greens Park.
"I usually take one book home with me, sometimes two or three."
The stop is not far from her home, Hamilton said, and the selection is appealing.
The Arlington Heights Memorial Library bookmobile is one of the few still operating. Out of the 12 libraries that used to have them in the suburbs, only four still have them today, said Scallon, the bookmobile supervisor.
One of the latest libraries to bid its bookmobile farewell was Des Plaines in December 2011. The library faced the decision of paying $20,000 for a new engine, $5,000 more than the 16-year-old bus was actually worth, or paying $350,000 for a new bus. Neither option seemed financially responsible to the officials, so they decided to drop the program.
And 18 months earlier, in June 2010, Indian Trails Public Library District serving the Wheeling/Prospect Heights area shut down its bookmobile service because of continuing mechanical problems.
So far, no such fate is likely in Arlington Heights.
"Oh no, there is no end in sight," said Deb Whisler, director of communications and marketing for the library.
The key reason the bookmobile is still going strong in Arlington Heights is that the library does not have branch libraries, unlike some of the other bigger suburbs, Whisler said. Especially for those who cannot make it to the main library at 500 N. Dunton Ave., the bookmobile holds true value.
"Through the bookmobile, we serve all the parts of the community," Whisler said.
The bookmobile also travels to community events like Picnic in the Park and Autumn Harvest.
Its popularity is reflected in its use. During the past 10 years, nine have seen an increase in circulation, said Jeremy Andrykowski, senior manager of customer services. This August, for example, circulation was up 14 percent from the same month last year. During the last fiscal year, 83,781 items were checked out, Andrykowski said.
The current bookmobile is three years old, was designed according to the library's wishes, has wheelchair access and runs on "green" resources, using biodiesel fuel, battery packs and sunroofs. How much money the library spends to provide bookmobile service, however, is not clear, as a cost/benefit analysis for it hasn't been done in recent years, Andrykowski said.
The American Library Association estimates there are 900 bookmobiles still operating in the country. The special service is marked by National Bookmobile Day, celebrated during National Library Week in April.