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Ashley Atkinson
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Rolling Our Way To 85

Rolling Our Way To 85

By Chris Barbuschak, Virginia Room Manager

In 2024, Fairfax County Public Library (FCPL) celebrates its 85th year of providing services to our community and its inhabitants. The anniversary, traditionally called a “sapphire anniversary,” is associated with the color sapphire blue, which is fitting when you considered the vehicle that started it all: a dark blue 1939 Chevrolet Suburban Panel Truck.

After nearly a decade of community efforts to create a permanent county library, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted to establish a free county library system on Feb. 1, 1939. With this motion, the Fairfax County Public Library system was born, and a circuit judge appointed a library board of five trustees from local citizens to create and direct the policies and operations of the library system. Because the Board of Supervisors budgeted an insufficient amount for its operation, $250 or $5,500 in today’s money when accounting for inflation, the trustees solicited financial aid from the state library board and the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA agreed to finance eighty percent of the library’s operating costs and make FCPL a demonstration statewide library project. Under those terms, the WPA financed the book collection, the salaries for a county librarian, library personnel and a bookmobile driver, and the loaning of a bookmobile.

The loaned bookmobile, a converted one-ton 1939 Chevrolet Suburban Panel Truck, was the last bookmobile in the WPA’s possession that remained available for assignment at the time, and the 12th to be placed in operation in Virginia. Dark blue in color, the WPA painted the words “Bookmobile” on the truck’s rear doors. Panels on both sides emblazoned with the text “Fairfax County Public Library” propped open to reveal shelves of books available for check out. As a traveling library, the bookmobile had a capacity for hauling 800 volumes to county residents. Boxes of books could also be stored inside for delivery to deposit stations at existing town libraries, county schools, stores and private residences.

On July 30, 1940, the WPA bookmobile was enthusiastically greeted by citizens and distinguished county and state officials for the first time at a welcoming ceremony on the Fairfax Courthouse’s lawn. Following speeches celebrating the positive impact that the traveling library would have on county residents, the bookmobile was open for inspection and library service started immediately. Nineteen-year-old Geraldine McKenna Nunnally of Falls Church had the honor of checking out the bookmobile’s first book— one of billions of checkouts to occur over the next 85 years.

Because the WPA required the bookmobile to be housed in a garage, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors agreed to build a 24x24 foot cinderblock library building with bookshelves and an attached garage for $1,090 behind the Fairfax Courthouse. Construction of the building was completed in late 1940 and, though not publicly accessible, it went on to serve as a headquarters for the bookmobile and library staff for the next decade.

As the county librarian, Dorothea Asher was responsible for driving the bookmobile. During its first year of operation, she acted as a library ambassador of goodwill driving the bookmobile across the rural county’s paved, gravel or muddy roads introducing citizens to library service. Some residents found the service too good to be true. In a May 1941 monthly report, she wrote:

“One man to whom we had sent a letter about the library, yelled out the door to his wife, who was examining the bookmobile, ‘Hey, Battleaxe, have you found out what the catch is yet?’ – Some people just don’t believe it is a free service.”

The bookmobile’s schedule and route were published in local newspapers. When it arrived at a scheduled stop, people came out rain or shine. Children jumped up and down in excitement upon the rolling library’s arrival, which would immediately be surrounded by a throng of citizens. During World War II, gas rationing and a shortage of automobile tires increased demand for books from the bookmobile even more as leisure time increased at home. By the end of fiscal year 1941-1942, the bookmobile had circulated 52,917 books at 76 stops and 22 deposit stations.

In 1943, the WPA ceased to exist, and Fairfax County assumed the responsibility of paying library staff. The county also purchased the bookmobile for $250 after lengthy negotiations with the federal and state governments in February 1945. That same year, the FCPL bookmobile was seen all over the world when it was featured in an Academy Award-nominated documentary called “Library of Congress.”

In September 1947, the library board authorized the purchase of a new larger county bookmobile, a converted International school bus. The air-conditioned bus had a larger capacity than the Chevrolet truck, able to carry up to 1,600 books. Patrons could walk down an aisle to select books from the shelves and even sit down to read them on a divan (sofa) at the rear. The new bookmobile arrived in July 1948 almost exactly eight years to the day after the first bookmobile was put into service.

Painted dark blue with silver lettering and stripes, the new vehicle surprisingly did not end the reign of the original FCPL bookmobile. Because there was such an increasing demand for library services by Fairfax County citizens, the two vehicles operated in tandem for many years over expanded routes and additional stops. The end for the original bookmobile finally came after sixteen years of faithful service. On May 1, 1956, FCPL started operation of a new International Harvester bookmobile with a capacity for 3,000 books. The original bookmobile ended its days by making deliveries to schools and the three library branches at the time: Thomas Jefferson, Martha Washington and George Mason. When the library director realized the old Chevrolet truck wouldn’t pass state inspection without serious repairs, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors authorized the purchase of a new delivery truck to replace it in September 1956.

Despite FCPL’s humble beginnings, the system has grown to become the largest in Virginia with 23 library branches to serve the public. In FY2023, circulation reached 11,220,910 checkouts and by the end of last year, more than three million digital loans had been checked out, a major milestone. Although bookmobiles are no longer in FCPL’s garage, the system continues to embrace the original vehicle’s goal: free and accessible library service for all Fairfax County citizens.

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