The following is our unedited article that later appeared (edited) in the Oxford University Press Blog, July 19, 2018.
After working for 26 years as academic librarians, we have reached a point in our careers where we are right-sizing professionally and personally. This year we requested and were granted a nine-month contract, enabling us to pursue our dream of cycling across the United States, from Washington, D.C., to Astoria, Oregon. Along the way, we are visiting public libraries, taking photos and making notes about library services and programming, and in particular, services available to bicycle tourists and other non-resident patrons. Although our careers have been in academic libraries, we are big supporters of public libraries. We believe them to be one of the few welcoming and safe spaces that offer services to the public at no cost. Serving as advocates for public libraries, we are writing about our library visits, sharing photos, and tracking our progress cross-country on our website: librariansonbikes.com.
Why travel by bicycle? Now that we are in our 50s and 60s, cycling provides health benefits that will contribute to our well-being as we grow older. We enjoy camping and the slower pace of bicycle travel that allows us to see things, smell things, and hear things you would not experience in a fast-moving car. We have been bicycle touring since our 20s and have completed many bicycle tours in the last ten years, most recently a 1,000 mile journey down the Baja Peninsula (San-Diego, California, to La Paz, Mexico) last winter.
When we travel on our bicycles we carrying everything we need: a tent, sleeping bags, stove and cookware, extra clothes, basic tools, food, and plenty of water. As self-contained cyclists we make frequent re-supply visits to grocery and convenience stores, occasionally eating at local diners and restaurants. We appreciate time off the bicycles to visit museums and local points-of-interests but most often we are stopping at public libraries. Fortunately, public libraries are still found in small towns across America, even in towns that no longer have a local grocery store or place to eat.
As bicycle tourists, libraries provide a refuge and a personal connection. Crossing Kansas and Eastern Colorado, with 102-degree afternoon heat, the library was a wonderful place to get out of the high temperatures, spend time working on the computers, or log in to the library wifi to conserve our data. In talking with the librarians throughout our trip, we create a personal connection with the towns, learning so much more about the local history, the people that live there, and services and programs provided by the library.
Currently our route follows the Adventure Cycling Association’s (ACA) TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, a route that originated in 1976 as the Bikecentennial Route. On their maps, ACA lists amenities (camping, hospitals, grocery stores, etc.) for towns situated along the 4,240-mile route. Around 2001, cyclists traveling on the route requested that ACA include sites providing internet access. ACA recognized potential problems with listing internet cafes due to their transient nature and decided the logical place for connectivity was public libraries. Since that time, ACA has included more than 1,500 public libraries on their maps.
As of late June, we have visited over 20 public libraries, and bicycled 2,300 miles. The libraries are always very welcoming, happy to see you, and ready to help you. Our approach is to introduce ourselves to library staff, ask them questions about library services for bicycle tourists such as ourselves and other non-residents that may stop at the library. We still are uncertain if they are more surprised (excited too!) that we are bicycling across the country or that we are both librarians.
Surprised by how many libraries would be willing to give non-residents a library card, we soon became interested in other issues such as library programming, staffing at the library, and support for the library by the local community. We’d like to highlight a few of the services and programming provided by the libraries we visited, but to read a fuller description, please visit our library blog (librariansonbikes.com/library-blog):
Many of the libraries along our route provided services to bicycle tourists passing through their towns. The Kiowa County Public Library in Eads, Colorado is situated on the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail and created a visitor guide specifically for TransAmerica cyclists with all kinds of useful information such as where to eat, shower, and camp, where to find ice cream, the grocery stores, and the swimming pool. The Council Grove Library in Council Grove, Kansas has created a Local Information space, a corner of the library that highlights the history, attractions, and businesses of the area. They serve as a second Visitors Center for the community, particularly since the library is open more hours.
And two groups that provide educational travel opportunities—by bicycle, will be hosted by libraries. In Kansas, the Newton Public Library is hosting the MITSpokes in early July, 2018. MITSpokes is a group of eight MIT students that share their love of Science-Technology-Engineering-Math with local youth during stops at selected sites during their cross-country cycling trip. In Missouri, the Augusta Branch of the Saint Charles City-County Library (Augusta, Missouri) is expecting a group of ROAD Scholars to stop by this summer as they cycle the KATY Trail.
We were impressed by the ease of access to computers and wifi for non-residents. An ID was never required in all 20 libraries and many provided access with only a signature or by picking up a slip of paper with a login. At least four of the libraries allowed anyone, regardless of residence, to obtain a library card with full borrowing privileges. All that is necessary is a government-issued ID and a piece of mail with your address. So even two bicycle tourists from North Carolina could have checked out books or downloaded ebooks onto our personal devices.
All of the libraries that we visited had engaging summer programming, welcoming spaces, and personable staff. Here are just a few examples of how these libraries are doing an amazing job:
In Hartsel, Colorado, a town of only 60 people, the community created the Hartsel Public Library in 1999. Books were donated and the library is staffed entirely by volunteers. The library is housed in a historic 1899 building, surrounded by a picket fence. The library recently received a grant to renovate the interior, creating a cozy and friendly space for community members and visitors.
Brownstown Branch Library in Brownstown, Illinois (population 750) houses its library in an old bank, using the vault as a children’s reading area. The library employs two part-time staff members. They each hold two jobs: one is a librarian/firefighter and the other is librarian/Mayor of Brownstown.
In 2018, the Robert Hoag Rawlings Public Library in Pueblo, Colorado, received both the National Medal for Museum and Library Service (IMLS) and the Leslie B. Knope Award (community favorite/social media award). In winning the Knope Award, Pueblo beat out Beth’s hometown library, Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, Kansas, during the final four voting. Having visited both of these libraries this summer, we have to say we were blown away by the library buildings and outdoor spaces; their creative and plentiful programming, and the obvious love and support they received from their communities. Both of these libraries are outstanding examples of library as the heart of a mid-size city.
We also visited communities that would greatly benefit from new library buildings or more support for library staff. The Kiowa County Public Library is housed in the basement of the County Courthouse, which limits its space and hours of operation. The Newton Public Library, suffering from water leakage and limited space, has been advocating for a new building since 2006. Many of the libraries we visited limit library staff work hours to avoid the cost of providing health insurance and other benefits. We were surprised that in one town (population 3,000+), even the Library Director was part-time.
And libraries are not immune from the challenges faced by communities, in fact, they are often an important resource for connecting people in their community with services and support. In speaking with public librarians, we heard about the opioid problem, lack of jobs, and food insecurity among their patrons. One librarians told us they fear that one day medical intervention will be needed in the library or come too late for addicted patrons. Many libraries provide resume writing clinics and help patrons submit job applications online. Other libraries are providing free summer lunches to youth, age 1-18.
Perhaps it goes without saying that the most appreciated services we found for bicycle tourists and other non-residents in the library were the simple things often taken for granted: a welcoming space with air-conditioning; electricity to charge our devices; internet connection; and the hospitality demonstrated by the library staff. One particularly hot afternoon, we witnessed a couple of other bicycle tourists camping at the city park. As we passed the park several times that day, on our way to the swimming pool, the library, and the soft-serve ice cream, we were puzzled why anyone would choose to sit in 102-degree temperatures while there was a wonderful library only three blocks away. Now, whenever we meet other bicycle tourists in town, we let them know that a wonderful library is just minutes away.