The Boxcar Library: A Bookmobile for a Logging Camp

(Photo: Kurt Wilson/The Missoulan)

It was 1917. Miss Ruth Worden, a librarian at the Missoula Public Library in Missoula, Montana, wanted to bring a world of knowledge and literature to lumberjacks at logging camps in her area. So she carted a few books into a camp operated by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company.

The camp boss, Kenneth Ross, was annoyed. His men were fighters, drinkers and gamblers--not readers. But he let Miss Worden distribute the books to his lumberjacks. To Mr. Ross's surprise, they hungrily embraced the idea. They checked out the library books and asked for more. So he built a library for his camp in a railroad boxcar:

Ross saw the results – 4,000 checked out in the first year and, to his “great surprise,” a good number in the camps.

“The next thing I heard was that one of the men at the bunkhouse had been reading up on industry and economics, and got out of one of the books an argument that shut up one of these fellows that always seems to think it is a crime to give a day’s work for a day’s pay,” Ross told another reporter in 1922.

He was a convert, and when Worden came around again with the idea of a library car to circulate among the lumber camps, Ross was sold. He had one built – 14 feet wide, 40 feet long – and it was put into action in 1921 in the Ninemile camps, rotating to the next one usually on a weekly basis.

(Photo: Missoula Public Library)

The boxcar library had about 1,400 books, newspapers, magazines and a victrola. It was a huge hit and regularly circulated among the logging camps, generally spending a week at each camp. During one 7-month period in 1926, it had 5,010 visitors.

(Photo: Missoula Public Library)

(Photo: Benjamin J. Clark)

(Photo: Benjamin J. Clark)

Where the library went, so did the librarian. One end of the boxcar consisted of an office and bunkroom where the librarian worked and slept.

The boxcar library was actively used until the late 1950s, when the logging company turned it over to the University of Montana's forestry department. Then, for many years, it served as a storage shed and bunkhouse for art students.

(Photo: Kurt Wilson/The Missoulian)

Amazingly, the boxcar library is still in good condition, as you can see from the above photo. It's been partially restored and is now on display at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. The skylight roof and exterior steps reflect the original style. It has wheels and is back on tracks intead of wooden timbers.

But that's only the beginning. Don Spritzer, the librarian pictured above, hopes to equip it with furniture, a woodstove and books appropriate for the 1920s. He and his colleagues hope to complete the restoration by July 4 of next year.

-via Library Journal


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