Librarian and Innovator of the ‘Bookmobile’: Farmington New Hampshire’s Mary Lemist Titcomb (1857-1932)

Mary Lemist Titcomb.
Photograph courtesy of the
Washington County Free Library System,
as cited on Western Maryland’s
Historical Library online.
Used with permission.

In 1905 it was an ground breaking idea to bring books directly to people who had trouble getting to the library. Mary Lemist Titcomb was passionate about reading, and making books available to everyone in Washington County, Maryland.

She started off by creating book collections in local public spaces such as churches, schools and post offices until there were 66 of them. A delivery truck would refresh and exchange the books on a regular basis. Then feeling she could reach more people, she began using a book cart to deliver books to families.

At first using a horse-drawn “Library Wagon,” and later a motorized vehicle the program expanded its services beyond library buildings to stopping at schools, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and anywhere people lived or met. “No better method has ever been devised for reaching the dweller in the country. The book goes to the man, not waiting for the man to come to the book,” Mary stated in her “Story of the Washington County Free Library.”

Robinson Female Academy graduation list of 1873.

It is said that Mary had designed the first wagon herself, reportedly it looked like a peddler’s cart containing shelves on the outside and storage space in the center. This wagon began service in April 1905, driven by Josh Thomas a veteran of the Civil War. The most popular book was “Ben Hur.” It took three days to to make its 50-mile round trip.

That first wagon was hit by a train in August of 1910 and reduced to a pile of rubble. The driver and horse survived. In 1912 the wagon became a motorized carriage (an International Harvester truck) and the book delivery vehicle has been improved upon ever since.

I don’t think that the Mary Titcomb coined the word “bookmobile.”  Even in 1924 Mary was still calling the vehicle a “Book Wagon.” Credit for coining that word possibly goes to another woman, Miss Anne Mulheron of Multinomah County Oregon, the country librarian in 1924 when the term was published in several newspapers regarding their farmer-directed traveling book program.  At any rate, following the successes of Mary Titcomb, and her presentation of the book wagon program at a National Library Association meeting, the idea of portable libraries quickly spread. Other states and countries saw the value in bringing education through books to their patrons on local, county and state levels.

–About Mary L. Titcomb–

A stereoview card of Robinson Female Seminary in Exeter New Hampshire. Wikimedia Commons.

Mary Lemist Titcomb was the daughter of George Alfred & Mary Elizabeth (Lancaster) Titcomb. She was born 16 May 1857 in Farmington, Strafford Co. NH and died 5 June 1932 in Hagerstown, Washington Co., Maryland.  She is buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Middlesex Co. MA. [See her genealogy following].

She had grown up in Farmington, New Hampshire, the third of seven children. They were all given advanced educational opportunities. Two of her brothers graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, and attended Harvard University. Mary Lemis Titcomb graduated from Robinson Female Seminary in Exeter, New Hampshire in 1873, in a class with sixteen women.

Her biography of experience is possibly best expressed in the local newspaper. The Caledonian newspaper of St. Johnsbury Vermont printed the following on 26 December 1900 with the headline: ‘Miss Titcomb Goes to Maryland.’ “Miss Mary L. Titcomb of Rutland, sister of John W. Titcomb of this place, has accepted a position as librarian of the new Free Library in Hagerstown, Md., and expects to assume her duties about February 1. The Hagerstown Daily Mail in a recent issue publishes an extended article on the library and the new librarian, reviewing Miss Titcomb’s well-known work as librarian of the Rutland Free Library, and her conspicuously successful service as secretary of the Vermont state library commission. The loss of Miss Titcomb to the commission will be a severe one, for the great success of the free library movement in Vermont during the past few years is due, in no small part, to her energetic work in its behalf. During her term as secretary, 85 libraries have been established under state aid, and the general activity in library work throughout the state has been greatly increased. Miss Titcomb was librarian of the Rutland Free Library from 1888 to 1899. The success which she achieved during that time cannot be better stated than to say that during the ten years from 1886 to 1889 the circulation of the library increased from 20,000 to 63,000 books annually. Since resigning her position at Rutland, about two years ago, Miss Titcomb has been engaged in special library work in Vermont. Aside from her duties on the commission, she has organized and catalogued the Goodrich Memorial Library at Newport, catalogued the Norman Williams Public Library at Woodstock, and is now engaged on the same work at the Fletcher Memorial Library at Ludlow. The library at Hagerstown to which Miss Titcomb has been called, is a new institution and has been richly endowed. The building which it is to occupy is now undergoing construction and will be ready for occupation in the spring. In the meantime the books will be catalogued and prepared for the shelves and it is expected the institution will be in full operation by June 1st. Miss Titcomb has made the work of a librarian a life study and the Hagerstown trustees have secured an executive head for their library, who, by reason of a natural ability and long experience, stands high among the librarians of the country.”

The general concept of a traveling library was already popular during Mary Titcomb’s work in Vermont, and had its roots in the University Movement that dates back to at least 1891. At that time lecturers traveled to cities and towns, carrying with them “a traveling library of reference books, which will be deposited for a certain time for consultation at each town where a lecture is delivered.” Mary L. Titcomb would have been aware of this practice and applied it to her work, expanding its scope in Maryland to the general public, and allowing the customer to select their own topics of interest.

During WWI books were an important part of a soldier’s recreation and education. Photograph of U.S. soldiers (during WWI) getting library books from truck, Kelly Field Library, c1917-1919; National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress

–Bookmobile Popularity Wanes–
In the late 1930s it is estimated there were 60 bookmobiles, and by 1997 there were 996 nationwide. By 2005 the number began to decrease, leaving about 800 bookmobiles, with even fewer (696) in existence in the United States by 2011.

The Manchester (NH) City Library phased out its bookmobile in 1981 when repairs were deemed too expensive. (Let it be noted that the Manchester City Library currently has a number of outreach programs, including Home Services where books are delivered directly to people who are unable to get to the library, and other projects are ongoing in public malls and nursing homes).

The year 2006 saw the last bookmobile in New Hampshire.  With advances in technology and the widespread use of computers, smartphones and tablets to access information, online books have become an alternate  resource.

The bookmobile in Wonalancet, New Hampshire. Arthur Walden is labeled at the back of the photo as being the gentleman in the big hat. From the New Hampshire History Project, 1951 copy of The Troubadour magazine.

In the United States there is still a National Bookmobile Day (April 12, 2017), held on the Wednesday of National Library Week (observed April 9-15, 2017) since 2010, and sponsored by the American Library Associations (ALA) Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS), the Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services (ABOS), and the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL).

In 2009 the Manchester (NH) City Library hosted the Digital Bookmobile National Tour.   History seems to like repeating itself. Brian Chicoine wrote a story in 2015 for the ManchesterInk.Link about wanting Library Boxes and Bookmobiles to return to our state–the very concept that Mary L. Titcomb first promoted over 110 years ago. I agree with Brian that hardbound and paperback books have not lost their popularity in the internet age.  Today the Digital Bookmobile, which educates people on how to access a library’s digital offerings looks nothing like and does not function similar to Mary Titcomb’s original book cart.

UPDATE 2020:  With the arrival of the COVID19 epidemic, bookmobiles are making a come-back in some places.  On August 17, 2020 Mayor Joyce Craig launched a bookmobile vehicle (a 2017 Dodge Promaster donated by Quirk Auto).  The article goes on to say that this is the third year of Manchester’s bookmobile, put back in use by Dr. Bolden Vargas, Superintendent of Manchester schools.

A photograph of the ‘retired’ Nashua NH Library Bookmobile, courtesy of Craig Michaud. Used with permission.


BOOK WAGONS: The County Library with Rural Book Delivery, Chicago, American Library Association, 1922; a booklet made up of material furnished by Miss Mary L. Titcomb of the Washington County Free Library, Hagerstown, Md., and Miss Mary Frank, of the New York Public Library. [Hathi Trust]

Boston Public Library – Flickr Photographs of Bookmobiles


William-1 Titcomb & Elizabeth (Mrs. Stevens 2d wife) of England and Newbury MA
Sergeant William-2 Titcomb & Ann Cottle
Daniel-3 Titcomb & Ann Wingate
Col. John-4 Titcomb & Sarah —
For details on these early Titcomb families see:
1)  New England Families, Genealogical and Memorial, Vol 2, by William Richard Cutter, 1914: Titcomb
2) Early New England people. Some account of the Ellis, Pemberton… by Sarah Elizabeth Titcomb

John-5 Titcomb son of Col John & Sarah (?) Titcomb, b 3 June 1760, baptized 3 August 1760 Dover NH, d 9 August 1816; m. 2 May 1781 in NH to Sarah Wingate Ham, daughter of Capt. Samuel & Sarah (Wingate) Ham of Dover. After her husband’s death she moved to Farmington NH. At the Battle of Bunker Hill he was 14 years old, (13 July 1775) kept as a waiter to his uncle Capt. Benjamin Titcomb’s Co., Col. Poors Regt. NH Militia. (Col.) John Titcomb, died from disease contracted while carrying goods/supplies to the army in the war with England (War of 1812). He lived in a one story house near where the old Dover (NH) Bank was, afterward built at the corner of No. 5 of the Cocheco Mgf Co. Mills. [Page 115 NH State Papers Vol X]. He also appears on the pay rolls in Capt. Moses Leavitt’s company, Col Thomas Bartlett’s regiment for the defense of West Point serving from July 4 to Oct 25, 1780 (Vol 3, NH Rolls, p128, 162, 628).
Children of John & Sarah W. (Ham) Titcomb:
1. Elizabeth “Betsey” Titcomb, m. John Foss
2. Sarah Titcomb, died young
3. Sarah2 Titcomb, m. — Poindexter
4. George Titcomb
5. Abigail Titcomb, m. George Poindexter
6. +John Titcomb, b 1785
7. Samuel Titcomb
8. Mary Titcomb, m. Jeremy Wingate
9. Lydia Titcomb, m. Isaac L. Folsom
10. Martha Titcomb, m. James C. Sewall
11. Jeremy H. Titcomb, b 1801, d. 25 Aug 1880 Farmington NH, aged 79; He m1) Joanna W. Rollins; m2) Charlotte Corson

John-6 Titcomb, son of John & Sarah W. (Ham) Titcomb, b 1785, d abt 1817 “died suddenly when only thirty-two years of age.”; He m. 28 November 1813 in Portsmouth NH at St. John’s Church to Sarah Gove Swett/Sweet, daughter of Benjamin & Jemima (Blake) Swett. She was. b 30 June 1790 in North Hampton NH. According to “New England Families” he was apprentice to his uncle, Captain Samuel Ham of Portsmouth. “He became an importer and wholesale dry goods dealer, in the days when Portsmouth was a rival of Boston.”
Children of John & Sarah (Swett) Titcomb:
1. Charles John Titcomb, bap 16 August 1818 Portsmouth NH; died aged 20y
2. +George Alfred Titcomb, b 18 Dec 1820 NH
3. Samuel Ham Titcomb, born 7 May 1822, bap 27 Oct 1822 Portsmouth NH; “married a Tennessee woman and was shot down on the streets of Nashville at the outbreak of the civil war, because of his outspoken Union sentiments.” [New England Families by W.R. Cutter]

January 22 1846 Farmer’s Cabinet wedding announcement George Titcomb and Mary E. Lancaster.

George Alfred-7 Titcomb son of John & Sarah G. (Swett) Titcomb, b 18 December 1820, Christened 1 July 1821 Portsmouth NH NH, d 1898; m. 1846 in Concord NH to Mary Elizabeth Lemist Lancaster, daughter of John & Mary (Lemis/Lomas) Lancaster. She b c1822 MA, d 1882 ?Maryland. In 1862 appointed Assistant Assessor by Hon. George M. Herring of Farmington, U.S. Assessor for the First Collection District of New Hampshire. Lived in Farmington and Exeter NH.
New England Families, Genealogical and Memorial, Vol 2, by William Richard Cutter, 1914
Farmer’s Cabinet (newspaper) Amherst NH, 22 January 1846
MARRIAGE: “In Concord, Mr. George A. Titcomb, of Farmington, to Miss Mary E. Lancaster, of Concord.”
1850 US Census > NH > Merrimack > Concord
John Lancaster M 57 NH
Mary Lancaster F 51 NH
Frank Lancaster M 17 NH
Clara Lancaster F 16 NH [b abt 1834]
1850 US Census > NH > Strafford > Farmington
Jeremy Wingate M 65 New Hampshire
George A Titcomb M 29 New Hampshire
May L Titcomb F 28 Massachusetts
Jeremy W Titcomb M 2 New Hampshire
Sarah Titcomb F 88 New Hampshire
Sarah Titcomb F 60 New Hampshire
Catherine Connell F 18 Ireland
Mary King F 10 Germany
Cary Littlefield F 9 Maine
1860 US Census > NH > Strafford > Farmington
Jeremy Wingate M 75 New Hampshire
George A Titcomb M 39 New Hampshire
Mary L Titcomb F 37 Massachusetts
Jeremy W Titcomb M 12 New Hampshire
Mary L Titcomb F 8 New Hampshire
George E Titcomb M 5 New Hampshire
Lydia F Titcomb F 3 New Hampshire
John Titcomb M 0 New Hampshire
Mary King F 20 Germany
1870 US Census > NH > Strafford > Farmington
Titcomb, Geo A 49 M W asst assessor, IR, NH
Titcomb Mary L 47 F W Keeping House Mass
Titcomb, Jeremiah W 22 M W Teacher NH
Titcomb, Mary E. 18 F W at home NH
Titcomb, Geo E 15 M W at home NH
Titcomb, Lydia F. 13 F W at home NH
Titcomb, John W 10 M W at home NH
Titcomb, Edward S 6 M W at home NH
Lancaster Malet 4 F W at home NH
Laughton Rose 16 F W domestic servant Maine

Biographies of Titcomb brothers from Whos Who in New England, 1917

Children of George A. & Mary E. Lemist (Lancaster) Titcomb:
1. Daughter Titcomb, b. 13 October 1846 Farmington NH, died before 1850 as not seen in that census or in 1860.
2. Jeremiah Wingate “Jeremy” Titcomb, b. abt 1848 NH d. 25 August 1880 Farmington NH
3. +Mary L.-8 Titcomb, b. 16 May 1852 Farmington NH   [this story is about her, see above]
4. George Eugene Titcomb, b. 22 July 1854; d. 6 December 1923; m. 10 April 1883 in Concord MA to Fannie Rodman, dau of Francis & Elizabeth B. (?) Rodman. Physician [see bio] Resided Concord MA
5. Lydia “Lillian” Folsom Titcomb, b. 31 Aug 1856 Farmington NH, died 12 April 1935 in Manchester NH. She m. 18 Jan 1886 at Exeter NH to Rufus King Howell Jr, son of Rufus King & Eliza Ellen (Boone) Howell. They had one child, Margaret B. Howell
6. John Wheelock Titcomb, b. 24 February 1860 Farmington NH; m. 22 Dec 1896 in St. Johnsbury VT to Martha E. Ross, dau of Jonathan & Eliza A. (?) Ross. Had 2 children: Elizabeth and Jonathan Ross. [see bio] At one time a member of the United States fish commission at Washington DC (1902).
7. Edward Fleetwood Sise Titcomb, b 22 Nov 1863 NH; d. 31 Jan 1948 in Los Angeles California; poultry rancher


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4 Responses to Librarian and Innovator of the ‘Bookmobile’: Farmington New Hampshire’s Mary Lemist Titcomb (1857-1932)

  1. Pingback: 2017 New Hampshire and National Women’s History Month | Cow Hampshire

  2. Amy says:

    I would never have guessed that bookmobiles went that far back. Nor did I know that they no longer exist. Interesting post!

  3. What a lovely story! It’s good to be reminded not to take access to books for granted.

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