When a committee authorized by the Wilkes County commissioners starts studying ways to improve library services in Wilkes, close consideration should be given to bringing back bookmobile services.

The Wilkes County Library had a bookmobile from 2003 to 2010. Utilization of this 28-foot-long bookmobile had gone from 22 to about 12 stops when budget cuts delivered the final blow and this service was ended.

Regardless of what was going on when the Wilkes bookmobile was taken off the road and sold about a decade ago, opportunities for bookmobile success should be greater now because of the ways these mobile libraries can help address the digital divide in rural areas.

Having internet access is rapidly becoming as important as electricity and other utilities. Public library bookmobiles across the country are providing access to high-speed internet with mobile hotspots.

There are bookmobiles equipped with broadband internet-connected PCs, high-definition monitors, premium sound systems and portable media players. Interactive computer stations give bookmobile patrons an opportunity to search digital media collection and use supported mobile devices. They can sample eBooks, audiobooks, music and video from the library.

Offering these tech features is a great way to introduce people to public libraries and encourage them to come to the brick and mortar facilities once they understand better through bookmobile visits what is available there.

In some instances, bookmobile services have been started when it became hard to justify keeping branch libraries in rural areas open.

Checking out books on a library on wheels can be the same process and provide the same opportunities as libraries in buildings. Libraries in the Appalachian and Northwestern regional systems are members of N.C. Cardinal, which means their patrons have access to books and other resources at about 50 public libraries across the state that also are Cardinal members.

The Alamance County Public Libraries’ bookmobile is called the Mobile Cafe, a Wi-Fi enabled van that provides wireless internet access to disadvantaged people in both rural and urban settings, including low income apartment complexes.

Elsewhere, bookmobiles are parked for scheduled periods at convenient locations around communities during part of each week to provide Wi-Fi hotspots. People who need to connect can still maintain social distancing guidelines while using the hotspots since they never have to leave their cars.

CARES Act grants have been used to fund bookmobiles for these types of services. Corporate sponsorships of a bookmobile could be offered, especially to companies in the business of making internet service available.

If operated with creativity and with close consideration of what people in a particular area need and how it should be provided, a bookmobile could be a cost-effective way to make traditional and more high-tech library services available to many more people.

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