200,000 miles and counting for Pima County Public Library Bookmobile driver

This article by Wade Zelenak was originally published in the Arizona Daily Star on Mar. 26, 2017.

Maybe you’ve seen it driving on the freeway, across town, in your neighborhood, or on a rural highway. Chances are, when you saw it your first thought was, “I didn’t know there was a bookmobile in town.”

Well there is and it’s run by the Pima County Public Library. In fact, it’s been in operation for more than 50 years!
My library career dates back 38 years and I’ve been fortunate enough to spend 21 of them on the Bookmobile.

Yes, you read that correctly and it’s as awesome as it sounds. I get paid to drive a big bus filled with library materials throughout eastern Pima County, delivering knowledge and entertainment to excited library customers of all ages.

If you figure the Bookmobile averages about 9,600 miles each and every year, well then I’ve covered more than 200,000 miles in my time with the library!

The 30 stops visited each month take the Bookmobile throughout Tucson, but also to Vail, Picture Rocks, Amado, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and even Sasabe near the Mexico border.

Scheduled stops include schools, recreation centers, and retirement communities.

The Bookmobile takes the library to places where our community needs them most—places where residents can’t always make it to the brick and mortar libraries.

Much like the post office, the Bookmobile travels through rain (sometimes snow), forest fires, bee swarms, and even caterpillar and grasshopper infestations. I’ve seen lots out on the road, but in my mind it’s all worth it.
Even though the stops are spread across Pima County’s 9,200 square miles, they all have one thing in common: how happy the Bookmobile makes everyone.

Many come on board to browse the collection to see what catches their eye. And there’s a lot—from books, of course, to magazines, DVDs, and audiobooks for all age levels and reading abilities. We’ve got a little bit of everything for everyone. We even have laptops for public use that are outfitted with WiFi and a printer thanks to a recent grant from the Tohono O’odham Nation.

While many swing by to browse leisurely, others reserve items for pick-up. In fact, I have some families who check out the maximum 25 items every month they visit with me.

One thing I love more than anything about my job is getting to know the customers and their reading tastes. Often when I come across an item that I know a particular customer will like I’ll set it aside. Other times I recommend items if the ones they want aren’t available that month. Being ready with suggestions is a big part of the service and my customers are always grateful. Success in my mind is when the customer comes back the next month asking for more by the same author!
Regular stops are only part of what the Bookmobile does. Attending special events is another big part of my job.

The annual Downtown Parade of Lights and Festival, for example, is just one of the wonderful events where the Bookmobile can be found, covered in lights of course! We also take the Bookmobile to literacy and back-to-school events as well as community events like the Tucson Festival of Books.

No matter where we are, the comments are generally the same. First, people say they didn’t know we had a bookmobile. Then nostalgia takes over and they tell me they haven’t been on a bookmobile for ages. And finally, how thrilled they are by the work that we’re doing.

Unsurprising, children are always so happy to see the Bookmobile. Their excitement is contagious, whether they are grabbing picture books off the shelves or sneaking up to the front to sit in the driver’s seat. I can’t help but smile.

One of the bonuses I have enjoyed is watching some of these children grow up. A few years ago a young man approached me at a stop and asked if I remembered him. He was the youngest of three brothers that regularly visited the Bookmobile in Littletown. He’s now in the Air Force and has a family of his own. He brought his own son to visit the Bookmobile.

The next time you see the Bookmobile driving around Pima County give us a wave. You won’t be the only one doing so!

Wade Zelenak is a library tech supervisor and has driven the Bookmobile since November 1995. When he’s not out on the road, he loves reading mysteries, adventure fiction, and 20th century U.S. history. His favorite is Stephen Ambrose’s “Nothing Like It in the World,” which tells the saga of the transcontinental railroad.