Fifty years sharing a bounty of books

Rob Bradshaw in his "office": Palmerston North's mobile library.
DAVID UNWIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Rob Bradshaw in his "office": Palmerston North's mobile library.

A booklovers' city tradition turns 50.

On Monday, one of Palmerston North's most enjoyable traditions will turn 50.

It's the Library Book Bus, the central library's mobile service which, six days a week, brings thousands of books, magazines and DVDs to children, adults and seniors at 33 locations.

The first mobile library, in 1967.
Manawatu Heritage

The first mobile library, in 1967.

It's come a long way since May 22, 1967, when the first city council bookmobile was a modest book-laden caravan, towed by a van driven by librarian Laila Maynard.

The city's head librarian of the time, David Trudgeon, had drawn up the original roster of stopping points – Hokowhitu, Manawatu St, Melford (now Pitama) shopping centre, Milson shopping centre, Ruahine St near Winchester School, and Highbury.

Roslyn didn't need to be on the itinerary – it had its own small branch library then, run by Dutch-Kiwi librarian Annie Steensma.

Steampunk art by Emanuel Yiannoutsos on one side of the bus, photographed by Rob Bradshaw in 2015.
Manawatu Heritage

Steampunk art by Emanuel Yiannoutsos on one side of the bus, photographed by Rob Bradshaw in 2015.

About 75 per cent of the caravan's stock was children's books. In all, its turnover crept up to about 2000 books a week, prompting the Manawatu Standard to quote a visiting National Library official: "Such figures are unequalled in library service anywhere".

Then, as now, the service was for any card-carrying library member who couldn't, for one reason or another, visit the central library.

It proved a real godsend for the elderly and mothers of pre-schoolers who didn't have cars.

Inside the 11.5m library bus.
DAVID UNWIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Inside the 11.5m library bus.

Books borrowed at the main library could be returned at the mobile unit, and vice versa.

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In 1971, a new towing van appeared, driven by Australian Liz Danks, a teacher and librarian.

"The caravan gets very noisy at times, but I prefer to let the children show their enthusiasm than keep them quiet," she told the Standard.

Emanuel Yiannoutsos' "people of Palmerston North" artwork on the other side of the bus.
Murray Wilson/ Fairfax NZ

Emanuel Yiannoutsos' "people of Palmerston North" artwork on the other side of the bus.

"I wish parents would read children's books and so learn how enjoyable they are…," she said, adding that she herself read a children's book every lunchtime.

Two years later, the caravan was gone, replaced by a 9 metre bus that cost $17,000, and a new driver, KJ Harrington. The Standard reported: "The launching… was held inside the van itself. Heavy rain prevented an outside ceremony."

There were now 21 stops and 3000 books.

School visits had become a feature of the service. Takaro School was first, as an experiment, which proved highly successful.

TB O'Neill, director of the extension division of the National Library, who visited the school, said that while Wellington and Auckland had book-van services to the suburbs – dating from 1947 and 1950, respectively – Palmerston North was the first to offer the public library service direct to schools.

In 1989, the "big blue bus" arrived – cost: $160,000 – and CDs and records joined books on the shelves. A downward blip in customer usage soon passed, with city library manager Anthony Lewis remarking on the "huge loyalty factor" among users.

Under-used stops were changed for pre-schools, retirement villages and other areas of need.

There have been a total of four buses so far. The 2002 model included the library's newly coined "Living Room of the City" slogan along the side.

Today's king of the road is Rob Bradshaw, the book bus' librarian/driver of 19 years.

The bus he now drives, a massive 11.5m-long, was built by Alexander Dennis Ltd, a UK-based company with building partnerships in New Zealand and other countries.

As noted by the Standard when it launched, it has a clean-drive diesel engine, automatic transmission, antler driving mirrors that reduce blind spots and a rear TV camera and proximity beepers to help with reversing.

It's computerised, has supplementary solar panels, fewer steps into the bus with shorter risers, a website tracker for followers to find its location and other technological features.

There are now also three new backup drivers.

The bus' whole concept – including a cleverly sloped floor – was designed, and its exterior painted, by Palmerston North artist/designer Emanuel Yiannoutsos.

An explosion of colour adorns each side of the vehicle: Golden steampunk on one side and a montage reflecting Palmerston North's population diversity on the other. The artwork took about 50 hours to complete.

The genial Bradshaw, originally from Leicester, England, says: "I can't think of a job I'd prefer more than this. To me, to be surrounded by books all day is great – I really like being out and about and I like the people".

"If I didn't work in a library, I'd be spending time in a library."

Patrons can choose from a revolving stock of 100,000 books.

His grandchildren just finished reading his pick for them: The Essential Guide to Planes.

"Kids' books have changed a lot over time."

Bradshaw's own reading tastes are wide-ranging, including sci-fi, biographies and classics, and at the moment he's reading about the life of Queen Victoria, subject of the ongoing TV series.

Bradshaw has his regulars, who greet him as an old friend at every location – he stops an average of 30-60 minutes – and some have even been known to bring him home-baked goodies.

During next week's anniversary, he'll revisit Takaro School, scene of the very first school visit in 1967, and the 50-year-old Ruahine St stop that's still on the schedule.

Up at the MiLife retirement village, he's been told, there'll be a celebratory cake waiting for him.

Come September, Rob Bradshaw plans to travel back to Leicester to celebrate his mother's 90th birthday.

Once there, there's another place you can bet he'll visit.

It's the Leicester Central Library. He's still got his library card.

 - Stuff

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