A brief history of taking books along for the ride A “Walking Library” in London, circa 1930s. (VSW Soibelman Syndicate News Agency Archive via History in Pictures/Spring 1973/Public Domain)
A brief history of taking books along for the ride
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It's a photograph from the 1930s. There are two women. They have pin-curls. They are paused in the street. One is sporting a book case. It has the slanting spines of books. The other has a volume. It is in her gloved hands. Her head is bowed. She looks at the open pages.

The caption is from the VSV Soibelman Syndicate News Agency Archive. It notes that the photo depicts a walking library. It is in London. It is during the 1930s. Annie Koh writes on a Tumblr blog. She has more details from the photograph. A longer caption reads:

"Critics are always remarking that we in this country lag far behind those of European countries when it comes to borrowing books from libraries. This enterprising girl at Rumsgate solves the problem. Taking her books in a rack tied to her back round the streets. And from door to door. And people can borrow them for a week at the price of twopence."

Were walking libraries a thing? There is a rich history of people walking with books. And of book collections made for traveling.

Misha Myers and Deirdre Heddon are performers. They have an ongoing art project. It looks at the crossing of walking and books. It was inspired by historical stories. They write for the journal "Cultural Geographies." Poet John Keats walked to the Lake District in Scotland. This was in 1818. He was carrying Dante's Divine Comedy. And he had the works of John Milton. Conservationist John Muir took a thousand-mile walk. He carried "a copy of Robert Burns' poetry. Milton's Paradise Lost. William Wood's Botany. A small New Testament. A journal and a map." 

But Myers and Heddon also wanted to ask what books add to a journey. And affect how the experience of it. They also want to know how the landscape and moving through it affects the experience of reading.

Carrying a full collection of books on a long trip would have been tiring. Four people or families were lucky. They had their own traveling library. This was in 17th-century England.

All it needed were small books. There were about 50. They were gold-tooled. They were vellum-bound books. They were all bundled up. They were put into a larger wooden case. It was bound in brown leather. It was meant to look like a book itself. These are held at the University of Leeds. They are in their special collections. This was a true traveling library. Four were made.

"These traveling libraries were intended to be carried about by noblemen in their travels," writes David Kirby. He wrote for the Michigan Quarterly Review. Scholars aren't sure who made the four traveling libraries. But they suspect William Hakewill. He was a lawyer. He was a bibliophile. And he was a legal historian. He lived from 1574 to 1655.

Who could afford such a treasure? Kings for one. The traveling libraries were attractive. Napoleon Bonaparte may have been tired of lugging his favorite books. He asked for his own traveling library. He got one. It was from M. Louis Barbier. He was in charge of the Louvre Library. That's according to an article. It was published in the Sacramento Daily Union. It was published on June 8, 1885. Austin Kleon is an author. He posted some of the paper. It was on his blog. It says that Napoleon asked that each tiny book in the library should "contain from five hundred to six hundred pages. And be bound in covers as flexible as possible. And with spring backs."

Furthermore: 

"There should be forty works on religion. Forty dramatic works. Forty volumes of epic. And sixty of other poetry. One hundred novels. And sixty volumes of history. The remainder being historical memoirs of every period."

What about the less well-heeled? A different kind of traveling library soon became available. Schools are still visited by traveling booksellers. They are now called book fairs. Or they are called bookmobiles. These have their roots in traveling libraries. These are from more than a century ago. These roving book collections first moved on horse-drawn carts. Then they were on automobiles. Rural areas especially relied on the visiting collections. Some communities still have their own versions.

But there is another walking library. It is a metaphor. It is offered up by Kirby. It was in the Michigan Quarterly Review.

His essay was about electronic books. And what digital technology might mean for future readers. "An e-book reader that is reasonably priced and a pleasure to use will be the ultimate traveling library," he notes. He adds a warning. He says that Kindles and Nooks likely won't look like the future. That is any more than the Model T looks like today's cars. But e-book readers are like a library. At least in some ways. They are a personal one. Users can even lend a book to a friend for a time with e-readers.

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