PORTLAND — For 14 years, librarian Jim Charette drove a bulky bookmobile into the city’s neighborhoods and senior centers, bringing books to people who couldn’t make it to the library.
He was one of just a few people trusted behind the wheel of the rig, which was roughly the size of a Metro bus and carried 2,500 books.
But in 1993 the bookmobile broke down and was taken out of service, he said.
On Tuesday, roughly two decades later, the Portland Public Library unveiled a sleek, compact, colorful van capable of carrying 1,500 titles to city neighborhoods that don’t have library branches or easy access to services. The city’s new bookmobile, which was three years in the making, features wireless Internet service and a computer powered by solar panels.
“This really isn’t your grandmother’s bookmobile,” said Sterling Kozlowski, president of KeyBank’s New England District, which donated $50,000 toward the van.
The 24-foot-long bookmobile cost roughly $166,000 and was paid for through a combination of private money and library funds.
Library Director Steve Podgajny said the goal had always been to replace the old bookmobile, but the need became more acute when two library branches were closed in 2010. “Bookmobiles are a sensible and time-proven concept,” he said.
Podgajny said the high-tech van reflects the library’s evolution and its quest to find new ways to provide information and technology to residents in underserved areas. “Libraries are agents of creativity and knowledge,” he said.
Mayor Michael Brennan helped unveil the bookmobile at noon Tuesday, saying it dovetails with his ConnectEd initiative, a coalition of public and private entities trying to enhance education opportunities in Maine’s largest city. The bookmobile will be part of summer reading programs that can help stop students from losing a portion of their educational gains after school lets out for the summer, he said.
“When I was much younger, I used to love when the bookmobile came to my neighborhood,” Brennan said. “It was a great way to be able to continue to read in the summer.”
Portland is leading the way when it comes to mobile outreach to patrons in Maine, according to Andi Jackson-Darling, president of the Maine Library Association.
“As far as I know, Portland is the only one in the state that has a bookmobile,” Jackson-Darling said. “Leave it to Portland to lead the way. They’re pretty progressive.”
In the past, bookmobiles were used in rural areas, Jackson-Darling said, but now they are making a comeback in cities that have closed library branches because of tight budgets.
That was the case in Portland in 2010, when the Munjoy Hill and Reiche branches were closed, leaving only the Main Library on Congress Street, the Burbank Branch on Stevens Avenue, the Riverton Branch on Forest Avenue and the Peaks Island Branch on Island Avenue.
The new bookmobile could be a way to bring readers back into the fold, said Suzanne McNicholas, a former Portland librarian who attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony in Monument Square and toured the bookmobile.
“It’s a doorway to the library,” McNicholas said. “Hopefully, (patrons) will feel good and come to the Main Library.”
Podgajny said the bookmobile will make regular 45-minute stops throughout the city, including general neighborhood stops and visits to specialized care centers.
It will initially run about 20 hours a week during weekdays, but could increase its runs if the library is successful in securing grant money, he said. Patrons will be able to order books to be delivered to their neighborhoods and use the bookmobile’s wireless Internet connection. Occasionally, patrons will be able to use computers in the bookmobile, Podgajny said.
The bookmobile also will provide information and help in areas such as personal finance and health.
Annual operating costs will be less than $10,000, Podganjy said, noting the van likely will get 22 miles per gallon of gasoline.
One of the first stops will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday in Monument Square. A summer schedule will be posted soon on the library’s website.
Meanwhile, Charette, the librarian who drove the old bookmobile, said he and other staffers are eager to get behind the wheel of the 2013 model.
“What’s old is new again,” he said.
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: