One Year of Street Books: A Bike-Powered Library For The Homeless

One Year of Street Books

When artist, writer, and mother of two Laura Moulton started a mobile library for "people who live outside" in Portland, Oregon using a $5,000 grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council, few thought it would still be going a year later. "You'll run out of books," people said. "You'll never see those books again," they said.

"To be honest," admitted Moulton, "we didn’t know whether or not this was true. We decided to operate the library on the assumption that people living outside have more pressing concerns than returning a library book, and that every time a return came in, it would be cause for celebration."

Now, twelve months later, Street Books—the bike- and trust-powered book lending program—has brought reading to hundreds who can't get books from traditional libraries due to a lack of permanent address or ID. Moulton's storage space is chock full of donated books and her project recently won an Innovations In Reading award from the National Book Foundation.

Even more impressive, Street Books boasts a return rate of nearly 70 percent (suck it, cynics). Even when patrons can't return a book because it was ruined by weather or circumstances, they often visit the cart to explain why. The Street Books blog features some of the more interesting lost-book stories, such as the account of a man who discovered that his borrowed copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War and his bike had been stolen, then used what he'd learned from the book to track down the bike by calmly searching city blocks in gradually wider concentric circles. The blog also features book reviews from patrons, incredible photos, interviews, and stories about life on the street, author donations, and the kindness of strangers. It's worth a read—equal parts heartwarming, heartbreaking, and inspiring.

The Street Books cart, with its forty to fifty book capacity, operates twice a week, offering everything from sci-fi, romance, detective stories, classics and westerns (Moulton reports that Louis L'Amour is particularly popular). To take a book, borrowers simply pull out the card in the back, sign it, and leave it with the librarian. There is no due date.

I'll admit that the 70 percent return rate surprised me a bit. I would've thought maybe 50 percent at most. Are you surprised that the books are returned?

Kimberly Turner

News by Kimberly Turner

Kimberly Turner is an internet entrepreneur, DJ, editor, beekeeper, linguist, traveler, and writer. This either makes her exceptionally well-rounded or slightly crazy; it’s hard to say which. She spent a decade as a journalist and magazine editor in Australia and the U.S. and is now working (very, very slowly) on her first novel. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, two cats, ten fish, and roughly 60,000 bees.

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Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated June 5, 2012 - 6:14am

I'm not. Most people aren't thieves, and most talented/willing thieves have enough income to avoid being homeless.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer June 5, 2012 - 6:31am

Most people are honest. The problem is that we tend to remember the people that aren't.

This is awesome, by the way. Especially the Art of War story.

Megan Kerr's picture
Megan Kerr June 5, 2012 - 6:40am

Really?  That's your take-away question - astonishment that the homeless aren't filching all the books?  That's all you get from this story?  How about a different question: how we would replicate this, other bright ideas for making books accessible to those who can't get them.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated June 5, 2012 - 6:46am

I don't think it was so much shock that they didn't keep them on purpose, as thinking they might be busy trying to stay alive.

If we are going to go for better questions how about, "How can we get them housing?"

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer June 5, 2012 - 6:49am

Not to mention that some of the homeless population move around from place to place or even city to city. You may lend a book and that person won't even be in the city the next time you go around. Seventy percent is really quite spectacular considering all the things that could go wrong.

Kimber's picture
Kimber from Atlanta June 5, 2012 - 7:32am

@Megan Kerr - To clarify, I was referring more to the sorts of things that @Dwayne and @Jack Campbell Jr. said than the homeless stealing all the books in the takeaway question, but I can see how that could've come across wrong. I was personally surprised because people without homes don't exactly have stable lives that allow them to easily bring borrowed items back to the same place at a specific time, plus they have nowhere to put the books for protection so I expected the elements and environment to lay waste to more of the books. I do think it's an amazing project that should be replicated in as many cities as possible.

Megan Kerr's picture
Megan Kerr June 5, 2012 - 1:28pm

Fair enough - I see what you mean. Apologies for the kneejerk. And given my track record for returning books, *any* returns is a marvel to me!  I'm the bane of libraries, having a firmly held belief that any given book secretly, in its heart of hearts, belongs to me.  I do agree with various others that there are more issues that need to be resolved besides the availability of books, but I don't think that means projects should be shot down - one project doesn't rule out another. 

Kimber's picture
Kimber from Atlanta June 5, 2012 - 9:23pm

@Megan Kerr No apology needed (and I just paid $11 in library fines myself yesterday, which means I had the books for like two years so I'm with you there). This sort of thing isn't a top priority for the homeless, but as the founder said, people in that situation really need something to help them mentally escape from reality, and books are perfect for that.