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On the move: mobile library services in New Zealand.

The mobile library has been a longstanding and important feature of the delivery of public library services in New Zealand. This article traces the development Of mobile libraries in New Zealand as the context for the first detailed survey of mobile libraries in more than a decade, and the development of standards for mobile libraries for the first time


In an overview of Mobile library service in New Zealand Bone (1) confirmed that mobile library service began in 1930 as part of the adult rural education scheme and was followed in 1938 by a mobile library service initiated by the National Library through its country library service vans. The first urban mobile library service began in 1947 in Wellington, followed closely by the establishment of services in Auckland and Dunedin in 1950.

Perry reported that in Wellington
 A ratepayers' poll clearly showed that an extension of
 branch library service was desirable and necessary, but
 at that time the difficulty of obtaining the necessary
 building permits was very great, and in order not to
 disappoint citizens who had been led to hope for a
 service in their own areas, it was decided to initiate a
 mobile service. (2)

In describing the commencement of the mobile library service in Auckland, Mackay commented that
 The rapid expansion of Auckland had caused
 problems in library service to the new housing
 settlements round the perimeter of the city, most
 of which had either been without any form of
 library service because of a lack of transport to
 one of the existing libraries or had been
 compelled to travel long and sometimes costly
 distances to the nearest library. Here again,
 building restrictions had prevented the
 establishment of new branch libraries in recent
 years, and may retard progress in this field for
 some time in the future. Attention was therefore
 directed to the possibilities of a mobile library
 offering an immediate, though partial solution to the
 problem, enabling a reasonable library service to be
 brought within the reach of readers who would
 otherwise be denied it. (3)

In his article Dunedin's mobile library, Wylie commented that
 On 17 April 1950 the third urban bookmobile in New
 Zealand commenced operations. Unlike those in
 Auckland and Wellington, it is not designed as an
 addition to existing branch services in suburban areas,
 but is in itself practically a complete suburban service
 for the people of Dunedin.

 The bookmobile, then, was designed primarily to give
 service to the suburbs that were more distant from the
 centre of the city, and to cater for people who do not
 normally come into the city, or who find it difficult to
 do so--mothers with young children or elderly
 people. (4)

Dunedin's first mobile library was a passenger bus which was purchased from the council's transport department, overhauled and converted into a mobile library at a total cost of 800 [pounds sterling].

In an article published in 1993 reporting his research into the Role of New Zealand," mobile libraries, Flyger observed that 'There are at least 15 mobiles in operation in New Zealand, some services having been in operation for over two decades'. (5)

While the number of mobile libraries had grown to this level in the more than 60 years since their commencement in New Zealand in 1930, the number has only increased by two in the ensuing decade to the time of the survey in 2003, which identified 16 public library services operating a total of 17 vehicles.


As part of a review of the Standards for New Zealand public libraries, (6) the team developing standards for mobile library services initiated the Survey of mobile library services" in New Zealand public libraries to

* collect information on the current level of mobile library services as a basis for the developing relevant and appropriate standards for New Zealand public libraries

* collate and distribute the information collected so that innovative solutions and best practice could be shared between libraries currently providing, or planning to develop mobile library services

* provide a framework and catalyst for closer cooperation and networking between New Zealand public libraries providing mobile library services.

Survey process

The survey was distributed in July 2003 to 15 New Zealand public libraries providing mobile library services. Completed surveys were returned by libraries during September to October 2003. The report of the survey was originally produced in January 2004, and a revised version was produced in August 2004 to include the Wanganui District Library.

For the purposes of the survey a mobile library service was considered to be the provision of access to a range of library materials and services, including at a minimum the borrowing and return of library items and the provision of reference information, using a vehicle which visits designated stops at a regular intervals. Although mobile and housebound library services share many characteristics, the mobile library service is distinguished by providing materials and services suitable for a wide range of age groups and community interests.

Survey results

What the survey revealed was that as at October 2003 there were 16 public libraries operating 17 vehicles. The average age of vehicles was 8.7 years, excluding the oldest vehicle still being used as a mobile. This was reported by Puke Ariki as being 35 years old at the time of the survey.

They were exclusively diesel powered, solid body bus type vehicles. There were thus no articulated vehicles being used. Nor did any of the vehicles have extendible capsules, both trends being evident in overseas mobile libraries. Approximately one third had automatic transmissions and operated primarily in the larger metropolitan areas, whilst two thirds had manual transmissions and operated in both urban and rural areas.

All but one of the vehicles was owned by the parent local government authority and in some cases leased to the library department. Wanganui District Library, as a bulk funded, independent business unit of its local authority, records its new mobile as a library owned asset. Service and maintenance was similarly undertaken predominantly by the council vehicle workshop or commercialised business unit, with some vehicles serviced by a commercial vehicle maintenance business. The average annual distance travelled was 13,042 kms with the Southland vehicle travelling 33,000 kms each year.

All libraries reported using battery power for lighting and the operation of equipment, with only three reporting the use of mains power at some or all of their mobile library stops and three libraries reporting the use of a generator. Four libraries reported the installation of air conditioning units and nine libraries reported the use of primarily gas or electric heaters.

Libraries reported an interesting range of special features including air suspension with a lowering kneeling device, hydraulic rams to stabilise the vehicle when parked and hydraulic wheelchair lift through a rear entrance.

The number of hours of service to the public varied from 34 hours per week in Auckland to 19.5 hours per week in Wellington, with an average of 26 hours per week.

While libraries indicated that the focus of their services was the broader community, responses from some indicated that from 20% to 30% of stops were located close to primary schools and kindergartens, with Selwyn reporting that most of its stops are at schools across its extensive rural area.

Reported were a range of arrangements to cover planned and unexpected disruptions to service and staff absences, with libraries reporting a level of service reliability at or above 96%.

The majority are operated by a sole charge librarian, supported in some cases by relieving and part time staff.

Although some libraries reported that their mobile library staff spent an equivalent amount of time off road as on road, it was more common for off road time to be from 20% to 40% of on road time. With the operation of the mobile library being an intense and demanding service, less than 0.2% of total staff time was spent in training, with the exception of the induction and training of a new mobile library staff member. Only half of the libraries reported that one or more mobile library staff had completed advanced driving or defensive driving courses or equivalent.

The capacity of the vehicles ranged from 2,000 to 4,000 items, with some libraries reporting collections of up to 16,500 items allocated to the mobile, the difference being items on loan to mobile library users and any exchange or overflow collections. Libraries reported the regular rotation of collections from weekly to monthly and up to six monthly.

The usage of mobile libraries, as reflected by the number of loans, varied from over 200,000 loans by Dunedin in 2001/02 (for two mobile library vehicles) to 31,000 by Rotorua in 2002/03. All libraries operated automated circulation systems with six libraries operating online, of which five libraries provide internet access on board. Eight reported operating in an offline mode using a laptop computer and uploading transactions at the end of the day. With New Zealand's most recent mobile library service commissioned in October 2003, Whangarei reported that printing, photocopying, scanning and faxing services were available for users.

The majority reported that their mobile participated in a range of promotional activities in addition to its scheduled stops, including visits to kindergartens, schools, carnivals and parades. A number of libraries made extensive use of colour and graphics to promote their service through the exterior of their vehicles, as well as through promotional publications, particularly the mobile library timetable. Three libraries reported the use of sponsorship, through commercial partnerships involving their mobile library.

The report of the Survey of mobile library services in New Zealand public libraries provides detailed appendices with library by library responses as well as images of mobile library interior and exterior design.

New mobile library standards

Using the detail provided by the survey, a small team of librarians from Rotorua, Southland District and Dunedin public libraries drafted standards using the same broad categories as the survey and also referencing mobile library standards produced by Ifla, Queensland and Victoria as well as the US National bookmobile guidelines.

These draft standards were then provided to all the public libraries participating in the survey for comment and a final draft submitted to the group coordinating the overall revision of the 2002 edition of the Standards for public libraries in New Zealand. After further consultation with public libraries across New Zealand, the standards for mobile libraries were incorporated into a new edition of the standards, published by the Library & Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (Lianza) in 2004.

Where to for the mobile library?

In an age of ubiquitous computing and mobile technologies, one may well question the future of the mobile library. The mobile library has been an important part of the library and information landscape in New Zealand for three quarters of a century, it does seem likely that it will continue to provide a valuable and valued service under circumstances where, as outlined in the Standards for public libraries in New Zealand

* the catchment population of a community is below 3,000 residents or may be dispersed across a wide geographic area and a static branch is not viable

* there is no library building within a traveling time or physical distance designated by the individual local authority

* the level and composition of the community population is changing rapidly, reflecting significant changes in need and demand for library services

* there is a temporary change to the service provided from a physical library building, such as closure for refurbishment

* the demand for library service is uncertain or unknown and it is appropriate to trial one or more possible service locations and establish the level of need

* key customer groups within the community have low mobility or reduced capacity to visit the library as a group, such as the elderly, nursing home residents, kindergarten or school groups

This important, but more defined, role for the mobile library seems to be supported by the relatively stable number of mobile libraries in New Zealand public libraries during the past decade. The launch of three new mobile libraries in 12 months around the date of the survey also clearly signals that the mobile library is far from dead and will remain an important feature of public library service provision in New Zealand.



(1) Bone, V Mobile library service in New Zealand Wilson library bulletin April 1993 p42

(2) Perry, S Suburban bibliobus: experiment in mobile service New Zealand libraries 10(8) pp 157-161

(3) Mackay, R Mobile library service in large and small cities Library school 1956

(4) Wylie, D Dunedin's mobile library New Zealand libraries 13(9) pp215-223

(5) Flyger, R The role of New Zealand's mobile libraries New Zealand libraries 47(7) pp 126-130

(6) Standards for New Zealand public libraries Revised edition Wellington, Lianza 2002

The Survey of mobile library services in New Zealand public libraries 2004 may be ordered from The cost is NZ$30.00

The Standards for New Zealand public libraries 2004, which includes the standards for mobile library services, may be ordered from Lianza publications/. The cost is NZ$30.00

Bernie Hawke

Library Services Manager and Fiona Jenks Bookbus Librarian,

Dunedin Public Libraries New Zealand

Bernie Hawke gained his library qualifications in Australia in 1977 and worked in Australian public libraries from 1978 with appointments including city librarian in Gladstone Qld, Cairns Qld and Williamstown Vic and manager of the East Gippsland Regional Library Vic. He also worked as collection services librarian at the Brisbane City Libraries and three years as director of special collections at the State Library of Queensland. Bernie moved to New Zealand in 2002 to be library services manager with Dunedin Public Libraries. He co compiled a Survey of mobile library services in Victoria 1994 and a Survey of mobile library services in New Zealand public libraries 2004, as well as participating in the Lianza review of New Zealand public library standards in 2002 and 2004. Address: Dunedin Public Libraries PO Box 5542 Dunedin New Zealand telephone +64 3 4743657

Fiona Jenks gained her library qualification in New Zealand in 1982 and worked as a cataloguer in the University of Otago Library. In 1984 she was appointed as children's/deputy librarian at Mosgiel Public Library and was appointed as Dunedin Public Libraries' bookbus librarian in 1998 where she organises two bookbuses with a part time staff of 5. Fiona was the co author of the Survey of mobile library services in New Zealand public libraries' 2004 Address: Dunedin Public Libraries PO Box 5542 Dunedin New Zealand telephone +64 3 4743439
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Author:Jenks, Fiona
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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