The Big Read Blog (Archive)

In Portland, Reading Takes to the Streets

Laura Moulton carting her mobile library. Photo by Jodi Darby

Libraries have always been the ultimate symbols of democracy: No matter your income level, education level, or location, libraries are there with open doors, waiting to share their stories with you for free. The only requirement to check out books? A library card, and the permanent address needed to obtain one. And that’s where things get tricky.

For those living in parks or under bridges, in alleys or on benches, there is no accepted address to prove local residency. So while library facilities may be used during the day, borrowing books remains unfeasible.

In the summer of 2011, Laura Moulton of Portland, Oregon, decided to rectify this with Street Books, a mobile library designed for the city’s “outdoor residents.” Every Wednesday and Saturday, she or another street librarian takes the library---a cart filled with books attached to the front of a bicycle---and sits out in four-hour shifts, waiting for patrons to come by. No proof of residency is required and there are no overdue fees, just a simple card and pocket check-out system. Patrons are asked to return books “when they are able”; their condition upon return is not a concern.

Laura Moulton conversing with a Street Books patron. Photo by Jodi Darby

Moulton, a novelist and artist, initially conceived of the mobile library as a three-month social art project that would last only through the summer. Using a grant from Portland’s Regional Arts & Culture Council, she stocked her library with a rotating selection of 40 or so books, featuring everyone from Ken Kesey and Louis L’Amour to Annie Dillard and Charles Frazier. To document the project, Moulton snapped photos of willing patrons with the books they checked out and posted them online. The photos served an additional purpose: “I wanted to dispel the notion that people outside were outside because they weren't intelligent, and they weren't interested in reading,” said Moulton.

In the project’s early days, Moulton worried whether books would be relevant to people who might be lacking basic necessities such as food and warm clothing. But she’s learned that books, and the act of sharing them, help keep her patrons engaged in a society that often overlooks them. “I've come to think over time that there's something very important about having conversations that have nothing to do with their current circumstances,” Moulton said. “I'm not a case worker, I'm not a parole officer, I'm not a parent that's disappointed in the life path they've chosen. So it's almost a luxury to just pause and talk about their favorite books, books that they read, or remember reading in school, the fact that they haven't read in a long time, and they wished they kept at it.”

As the summer wound down and the project was meant to come to a close, Moulton realized that these conversations, and the connections she had formed, were bigger than a three-month grant. “I just didn't think through that when you form these relationships and you set the parameters, the ‘I will be here next week, I'll see you then,’---that's not an easy thing to wrap up,” Moulton said. “One of the weeks that I showed up to get my bicycle and found some people standing out waiting for me to come, I realized there's no way I could just give a jaunty wave and say, ‘Thanks so much for the great art project, guys. Good luck.’”

A Street Books patron with a copy of Pearl Harbor. Photo by Jodi Darby

And so, Moulton decided to keep Street Books going, manning outdoor shifts even during Portland’s cold and rainy months. As the weather begins to cool again, she is working with local organizations where she might set up an indoor location as well.

As Street Books has gained visibility---the project has been featured in The Christian Science Monitor, Oregon Live, and The Portland Mercury, among others---Moulton says she’s been surprised by how supportive the public has been. People will stop Moulton on the street to donate money, or go directly to bookstores to donate credit so that Moulton can buy specific books requested by patrons. One individual, after reading about a Street Books patron named Pamela who loved wolves, donated a bag of wolf-themed items---an old calendar, a plush toy, a coffee table book---which Moulton then passed on the woman. “She took that plush wolf toy and just cried. It was very touching,” Moulton said. “That idea that someone made a human connection with this photo of this person and then sought her out---that was a really cool experience to be there for.”

Of course, there are difficult moments as well, like when Pamela lost her shopping cart during a city cleanup effort. But as Moulton noted, the project has changed her own definition of sadness. “I think that there's a resilience to people…that makes it a little bit insulting to pity them,” she said. “Once I've gotten to know people and understand their triumphs and the setbacks they're experiencing, that can't just be a depressing situation that I shake my head at and walk away from.”

Moulton mentioned that this inner resilience is sometimes reflected in her patrons’ reading choices. Like any reader, some of her patrons read to kill time, some read to escape, and some read stories that reflect their own lives. She brought up a man named Mark, who had told her he’d enjoyed reading Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand because “here was this horse who had potential and worth but nobody could see [it],” she said. “He knew exactly how that felt.”

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