When kids think of going to the bookstore, a colorful bus usually doesn’t come to mind.
Yet music, free wifi, stacks of books and twinkling lights have come to define the Dream Bus — Madison’s new mobile library.
Launched in April as a project branching off of Dane County’s bookmobile, the Dream Bus provides books to young students who don’t have easy access to public libraries. Funded jointly by the Madison Public Library Foundation and Dane County Library Service through 2021, the project is making its way through different neighborhoods in Madison.
On weekday afternoons, the Dream Bus travels to ReNew, the Crossings, Leopold Elementary and other schools. And like any public library, it allows kids to independently find the right book for them.
“I think if we help children to understand that the library is there for them, it’s something they can use on their own terms,” said Dane County Library Service Director Tracy Herold. “They will continue to seek out libraries as points of access for information throughout their lives, and I think that’s a good thing to keep us evolving and growing as people.”
Herold proposed the new vehicle to provide services and collections to families in Madison approximately two years ago. Madison Public Library privately fundraised almost $500,000 for the project, and the Goodman Foundation donated a significant amount to kickstart the Dream Bus at the start of 2018, according to MPL Executive Director Jenni Jeffress.
With funding secure, MPL started planning. Since then, communities, investors and workers have embraced the Dream Bus.
“There’s a coolness factor,” stated Amy Winkleman, library assistant to Dane County Library Services and one of five people who work on the Dream Bus. “The response is usually, especially from kids, ‘Woah! Is this a library?’ It’s like this entirely new library world.”
For students with minimal access to public libraries — due to distance or scheduling — the Dream Bus offers a way for the books to come to them.
“Anytime that you can get a kid excited about reading on their own time feels like a win to us,” said Tana Elias, Digital Services and Marketing Manager at Madison Public Library.
The bookmobile, which operates under a similar premise in Dane County, has served residents for over fifty years; it does not travel to Madison municipalities, however, according to Elias.
Still, their primary goal is for people to have access to the library, Winkleman said. By assuaging concerns about overdue fines or losses, they also hope to see patrons return.
“That’s the beauty of mobile service — you can kind of fit into those gaps,” Herold said. “I think the question of library systems and where you establish them is complex, and you try to plan the best you can and continue then to adapt.”
Though the Dream Bus is no quick fix to literacy disparities, students who otherwise may have not been able to access their public library are checking out items at high rates.
Since its opening, the Dream Bus has welcomed over 4,000 visitors, according to Herold. She estimates that over 300 library cards have been issued and nearly 4,500 items have been checked out.
“I think this is just another way that libraries are relevant — even in the age of social media and the Internet,” Herold said.
The Dream Bus also provides a huge Spanish collection, as many families living in its visiting communities are Spanish-speaking. Several schools even have dual-language immersion programs — like Leopold Elementary.
Winkleman added that graphic novels have been a huge hit for school-grade and middle school kids.
“It’s really fun to be able to get to know people — that include[s] getting to know what they like to read,” Winkleman said. “I really think with books you just have to find the right book. If you think you don’t like reading, you just haven’t found the right book for you yet.”
A lot of the neighborhoods the Dream Bus visits are low-income, densely-populated and underserved, according to Winkleman.
In September, a series of four statewide exams indicated that less than half of Wisconsin students are proficient in English. When disaggregated by racial and ethnic groups, the data also showed achievement gaps for both public and private school students who participated in the exam.
Reading is crucial toward development, though it isn’t always feasible for students to find a book in a library located far away.
“We wanted to break down some of those barriers to make sure the kids in Madison we weren’t serving would have some of the same opportunities that other people in Dane County have,” Elias said.
As for what’s next for the Dream Bus, Herold said while the project is still new, a potential expansion in the future isn’t too far out of reach.
“I think the idea is that we will continue service in all the locations we are [in] and hopefully expand to other locations in the next couple of years, depending on the need,” she added. “Then, after 2021, the hope is that this becomes a permanent partnership between Madison and Dane County.”