Wisconsin has had "traveling libraries" since the early 1900s, a date calculated based on a photograph of such a vehicle taken in Washington County in 1913. But bookmobile service as experienced today was traced by library historian and retired librarian Larry Nix to 1940, when the Wisconsin Free Library Commission bought three bookmobiles using Works Progress Administration money.
The first autonomous bookmobile service began in Shawano County in 1942, using one of those three vehicles. Another served Grant, Iowa, Crawford and Rock Counties.
John DeBacher, public library administration consultant for the state Department of Public Instruction, checked state records and calculated Wisconsin had 24 bookmobiles in operation in 1968, 19 in 1986, and 18 in 1990. In 1996 there were 12 bookmobiles listed.
As of 2009, DeBacher found nine libraries with bookmobiles: Fond du Lac Public Library, Brown County Library, Kenosha Public Library, Dane County Library Service, Milwaukee Public Library, Racine Public Library, Kilbourn (Wisconsin Dells) Public Library, and the Eastern Shores Library System, based in Sheboygan. The ninth is operated by the Shawano City-County Library, which was formed as one of the first, in 1942.
The Dane County Library Service, among others, is watching the Kilbourn (Wisconsin Dells-Lake Delton) Public Library which this summer added WI-FI to its two-year-old bookmobile and an ambitious schedule of stops that include retirement and assisted-living homes, a day care center, two elementary schools and a large apartment complex with a Hispanic population, according to assistant library director Charlotte Walch Davies. The interest is focused on Kilbourn's equipping the bookmobile with a wireless computer connection access for people who bring their own laptop computers. The connection works from up to 50 feet away from the bookmobile for up to five computers, she said.
"We've been busier than ever, not just with the computers, not just the DVDs, but all of the books, too," she said.