Street Books and community literacy

Multnomah County Library provides books to a number of community led literacy programs. On such program is Street Books. We had an awesome opportunity to sit down with Street Books founder Laura Moulton. Here is what she had to say.

Hello Laura, for those who may not know, please describe what Street Books is all about.

Street Librarian Diana Rempe shows off new bike library donated by Splendid Cycle

Street Books is a bicycle-powered mobile library serving people who live outside in Portland. We serve people who might not access Multnomah County’s library system, for a variety of reasons. We serve different parts of the city, 3 times a week, and have a regular group of faithful patrons.

How/why did you start Street Books?

We got a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council, and the first shifts launched in June of 2011. That initial funding was so important to making the project happen. I think the reason behind starting it was that I am a lover of books and good stories, and I saw a group of people at the margins who weren’t accessing books. I think one original inspiration for the project comes from an encounter I had with a man named Joe in the late 90s. He lived outside, and frequented the neighborhood where I lived. We had a long talk about books, and discovered a shared affinity for books about the west, particularly books like The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie. I wound up getting him a sack of paperbacks from Powells, and I think that might have been an early gesture that planted the seed for Street Books. 

Describe a typical Street Books patron...does that even exist?

What our patrons have in common is that they live outside or are in vulnerable places (living in a car, shelter, etc.). Beyond that, it would be impossible to define a “typical” patron. There is an enormous diversity of readers, and every summer their requests help illustrate this point. This summer I have filled requests at the Workers’ Center on MLK Blvd. for Spanish-speaking authors ranging from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Eduardo Galeano to a manual on fixing computers (still searching for the last one). James Patterson is a perennial favorite at our other shifts, but so is Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin and Barbara Kingsolver. Another commonality is the appreciation for a good conversation about books and reading. So many of our patrons linger to talk about their experience growing up (with or often without) books, their favorite authors, whether the film was better than the book, etc. And the fact that this sometimes occurs between our patrons and people who have houses, who have stopped to admire the bike library, is all the better.

How long has Street Books been around?

It was founded in 2011, so this summer marks our 5th anniversary!

Street Books relies on community donations including books from Multnomah County Library. Explain what these donations mean to the existence of Street Books.

Street Books exists because the citizens of Portland said YES to a street library for our city. They supported the Kickstarter campaign in the fall of 2011, and they have continued this support in different ways ever since. I am proud of the fact that we are scrappy and don’t have to fundraise for a brick and mortar to hold us. The Ecotrust building donates downstairs space for our library, and Ryan Hashagan with Portland Pedicabs has given us extremely reduced rent to store our bike library in his China Town garage. Multnomah County’s Outreach Services department donates 2 boxes of books every month. So we have formed important partnerships over time that help sustain us. But we need donations to operate. All money that we are able to raise from tax-deductible donations goes directly to providing services to our patrons, to supporting street librarians and to maintaining our bike library. We don’t have fancy letterhead or soirees, but we are steady and after 5 years, still going strong.  

For more information feel free to contact Laura and her team at librarian@streetbooks.org .

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