Career novels don’t get much cooler than Books on Wheels by Mary R. Lingenfelter. It’s no secret that I work one department over from my library’s wonderful Bookmobile Department and that I’ve been lucky enough to join the bookmobile on about half a dozen trips, mainly school visits. The technology on the bookmobile has certainly changed since Books on Wheels’ 1938 publication date, but the premise of delivering library services to the community outside of library walls rings true today.
Books on Wheels is part of the Kitson Careers Series, as the editor of the series was Harry D. Kitson, Ph.D., at the Teachers College of Columbia University. The Kitson Careers series seems to be published around the same era as the Dodd Mead series (think Marian-Martha from 1936) but well before the mid-century Avalon career series (Kitsy Babcock: Library Assistant, 1958 – yes, I finally found her!) or the Julian Messner Career-Romances for Young Moderns series (Nancy Runs the Bookmobile, 1956, and Jinny Williams: Library Assistant, 1962). Books on Wheels: Opportunities in Library Work includes about twenty pages of back matter with additional resources including a glossary, a list of accredited library schools, and suggestions for further reading. I wouldn’t recommend these resources as being up to date, but that’s a no-brainer after nearly eighty years. For example, the section on library school reads, “except in rare cases, library schools discourage a student from attempting to carry part time work.” Now the opposite is true, and most programs require an internship component.
Anyway, so Books on Wheels brightened one of my days this winter. Not only is the blue and orange Stephen Voorhies cover art spectacular, but I opened my copy of this book to find it signed by the author! Best Yuletide Wishes 1938! To the person who found and sent me this marvelous book, again, thank you.
Our protagonist, Barbara Minton, starts the story off by declaring to her long time boyfriend that she’s decided to pursue a career in librarianship. David reluctantly gives Barbara his blessing, put out that this will delay their marriage. Barbara wraps up her undergraduate degree in a chapter flat, sticking near home to save on expenses, while working at the local public library trying her hand in different departments. She even works part time at her college library for a semester before packing up for Columbia. Of course Barbara chooses Columbia as the author and editor of this book were working there at the time of publication.
Barbara begins Columbia the fall after she graduates from college and it is the first time she’s been far from home. She falls behind and resolves her academic troubles by building a strict hour-by-hour schedule. Seriously, who does this? Our career novel helpfully dedicated a full page spread to Barbara’s schedule, presumably so young readers could go by her stellar example. Please.
An honest and up to date (post-2009) career series book focusing on librarianship might have the protagonist search fruitlessly for professional work for six months to a year post-graduation. Of course, this is not that book and Barbara graduates with a job. She has an inside connection in that the public library where she had worked previously has a temporary position opening. The part about accepting a two-year position with possibility but no guarantee of extension is reflective of a lot of the current entry-level library profession. Her starting salary is $1200 a year, or $20,363 in 2016 dollars.
Barbara’s main conflicts are turbulent weather, getting the city to pass a tax for the continuation of the bookmobile services, and her relationship with David. Barbara works tirelessly to promote the poor women drivers stereotype in this book. Honestly, every time there is a severe weather event and everyone tells Barbara not to drive off, she does anyway and gets in an accident. This happens multiple times throughout the book. At one point she even gets an assistant driver to help her but then she grabs his arm on an icy hill, resulting in yet another off-road incident.
Barbara and David have various adventures throughout the book, climbing mountains and searching for artifacts. They of course end up married at the end of Books on Wheels. Even though Barbara will be returning to work after her honeymoon, it’s also pretty clear that she won’t be a county librarian forever. In the final chapter, she’s already discussing how much longer she can continue working and when the library will hire and begin training her eventual replacement. Just “not right away.”
More stories focusing on women’s experiences, including women working in various professions, can be found here.