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My Mother

Eldeane Wilson, Bookmobile Librarian

Eldeane Wilson and Barbara Niedringhaus with the bookmobile, circa 1960.

When I went away to college, my mother decided to get a job. She’d trained as a kindergarten teacher and had taught before she married my father, but now she wanted to work at the Anne Arundel County Public Library. My father thought that was a great idea: She could make back all the money she’d paid in overdue book fines.
    I don’t know why Mother chose the library, although we’d spent a lot of time there over the years. More surprising was that she was going to drive the bookmobile. My mother, Eldeane Wilson, and Violet Mumford, two middle-aged women, each maybe a bit over five feet and just slightly plump, friendly and well read, drove the library’s light-green panel truck loaded with books all over Anne Arundel County in the late 1950s — in dresses.
    In those days, the county had one main library, housed in the 18th-century Reynolds Tavern on Church Circle in Annapolis. There were county library collections in a couple of schools in the northern part of the county, and Glen Burnie boasted its own library, endowed by the Kuethe family, which became part of the county system in the late 1950s. That was it.
    This was after World War II, when Anne Arundel’s 1940 population tripled by 1960. People came by the thousands to work in industry and government agencies and at the Naval Academy and Naval Post-Graduate School in Annapolis. Many of the new residents lived in barely winterized houses in waterfront communities that before the war had been summer retreats for people from Baltimore or Washington. Veterans with young families expected schools, convenient shopping and cultural amenities — like libraries.
    I remember the bookmobile from my own childhood in a rural community on the Bay, and I suspect that Mother appreciated it then a lot more than I did. Perhaps that was why she chose that job when she had the opportunity.
    Bookmobiles took libraries to the people, and Mother and Mrs. Mumford made sure their patrons found the books they wanted. Children’s books, novels, non-fiction: a good selection was on the truck each day. If a patron needed information on a special topic, wanted a particular cook book, ­couldn’t wait to read her favorite author’s latest book, the bookmobile librarians did their best to bring those along. I know that Mother raided my bookcases at home for college texts that someone on one of her routes needed.
    As the bookmobile approached each stop, the horn played the familiar Mary Had a Little Lamb tune, and patrons, mainly women, gathered round. Children played, mothers chatted, books were borrowed and returned. Mother and Mrs. Mumford and the other bookmobile librarians came to know the people in every community who used the library. They asked about the sick and elderly, admired a new baby, enjoyed a snack or drink or, most of all, a bathroom break.
    The bookmobile lived in the garage at the back of Reynolds Tavern, on Franklin Street. The garage’s narrow driveway had a 90-degree turn to get into it and a post on either side. Mother was proud that only once did she hit a post, and not very hard. I worried about her driving that huge truck in traffic around Church Circle, but Mother said cars generally gave them room. My father thought that was because both women were so short you could barely see their heads over the steering wheel, and it looked like the bookmobile was driving itself. The only serious accident I recall was the time the bookmobile slid off ­Herald Harbor Road on a hill in icy weather. Fortunately no one was hurt, and there was little damage.
    Once the West Street library opened in 1965, the bookmobiles moved to special covered spaces, and loading up didn’t depend on the weather. Getting in and out of the lot was easier, too.
    From Deale to Mountain Road, Maryland City to Riviera Beach, Crofton to Londontown, the bookmobile went where people requested it. Week after week, the green truck brought books and friendly librarians to residents of communities across the county. Mother said that once people learned how important the library was to their lives, they lobbied for a brick and mortar building. The county built branches throughout the 1960s and ’70s; there are 15 today.
    Mother retired from the library when she realized she had ALS, the disease that killed her more than 40 years ago. But I’m always happy when I run into one of the women who worked with her on the bookmobile; they tell me stories and make me smile. My mother loved her job.

Annapolis historian Jane McWilliams is the author of Annapolis: City on the Severn