McCracken lost its bookmobile decades ago due to funding shortages, but their long-term goal of reviving the bookmobile was expanded to include the new health literacy focus, with Brary Bike.
Like many cities in the southern United States, Paducah, Kentucky has historically not been considered bicycle friendly. Avid biker and librarian Erin Lewis recalls times when angry motorists cut her off, flipped her off, and in other ways expressed their displeasure that she was commuting by bicycle. Nevertheless, a growing number of Paducahans embrace cycling.
A major catalyst for the library’s support of biking came in 1987, when Martha Emmons started the local business Bike World in Paducah. Growing up in Appalachia, Emmons’ first job at the age of 14 was to ride in the bookmobile and help people in circulation. She is a lifelong lover of libraries, and so when she moved to Paducah she immediately sought out a partnership with the library.
Noticing that the library had a monthly display of some sort, Emmons requested bike month be highlighted each May. Emmons also noticed a lack of parking for the number of people who rode their bikes to the library. Her first project with the library in 1990 was to install a bike rack in a parking spot, which was eventually moved closer to the entrance for more convenience. Then she worked with the library to offer locks for check out to people who rode to the library without their own locks.
In 2012 Emmons fulfilled her dream of a bike camp for kids, a camp that would help instill both leadership and bicycling skills. As part of the camp, she always took kids to the library and behind the scenes to show them how libraries are managed. Her advocacy for libraries extended to the growing cycling community. She’d advise other bike shop owners to reach a new audience through the library, but not everyone in the community sees how bicycling and public libraries come together in the way Emmons does.
Before 2013, Emmons did not have a kindred spirit within the McCracken County Public Library. Sure, the library staff loved to work with her and to bring her bike camp kids into the library, but that was the extent of the relationship.
That changed dramatically in August 2013 when Erin Lewis was promoted from part-time Library Clerk to full-time Adult Services Library Assistant. Immediately after moving to Paducah, Lewis sought out connections to the cycling community, but the new position gave her more autonomy to develop programming and partnerships. She increasingly mobilized those connections, and in the summer of 2015 she and Emmons developed their first program together in which Emmons led a bicycle safety program at the library.
Two signature collaborations between Lewis, Emmons, and others in the local bike community, most notably the local cycling club, are: 1) Pedal in Paducah’s monthly group bike rides at the library, and 2) Brary Bike, a library book bike.
Pedal in Paducah began because Lewis participated in the weekly Tuesday group rides that started at Emmons’ Bike World. They noticed that the rides would attract the same cyclists every week and considered changing the route to start and end at the library once a month to reach a wider audience.
When the Tuesday night ride moved to the library on the last week of each month they got a huge reception. People of all ages, fitness levels, and backgrounds showed up. The library setting helped cycling feel accessible to those who did not see themselves as athletes. The Bike World rides averaged 25 people, but 40 to 60 attended at the library.
Just as Pedal in Paducah inspired more community members to bike together, Brary Bike inspired more librarians to bicycle.
Emmons and Lewis worked with all library staff who wanted to use the book bike to help them feel safe riding it around the downtown area. Emmons and Lewis offered library staff free hands-on urban bike safety classes, taken during paid staff time, that enabled them to get a feel for riding the Brary Bike through downtown Paducah. About ten library staff eagerly embraced the opportunity.
Lewis said that when she and other staff ride Brary Bike around town the reaction they get is so much different from when they bike as private citizens. Lewis said sometimes she experiences hostility from motorists as a bike commuter, but when she rides Brary Bike people are more courteous, respectful, and accommodating. Brary Bike could be making bicycling safer for all in Paducah.
Emmons said “we’re always there” for the library. Even in summer, Bike World’s busiest time, if there is a maintenance issue with Brary Bike she’ll drop everything to fix it for the library.
As Lewis fostered this partnership with Emmons, she also built a collaboration with current library director, and former adult services librarian, Sarah McGowan. McGowan and Lewis became the catalysts for physical activity for adults at the library, helping each other out with bicycling and yoga programming.
Through this work, fostering connections with the bike community helped to amplify the library’s efforts to leverage all assets of library staff – empowering both internal (Erin & Sarah) and external (Bike World plus the library) partnerships. What an example of a confluence!