The Bibliobicicleta: A Library on Wheels

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Bibliobicicleta at Sunday Streets April 2022 (Alicia Tapia)

SHC’s librarian, Dr. Tapia, combined her love of books and biking into the San Francisco community’s local, mobile library.

What is the Bibliobicicleta?

The Bibliobicicleta is a pop-up mobile library of free books. It’s a way to recirculate books that people aren’t reading anymore, and the pop-up aspect brings convenience — it’s like a library coming to the people instead of them having to go to the library. 

…It’s sort of serendipitous… you pick up a book and you’re like Wow, this is exactly what I needed to read right now for whatever reason. I hope it brings that to people.

How did you come up with the idea for the Bibliobicicleta?

Actually it was [at SHC and De Marillac Academy] when I was working, ten years ago maybe. One of the former librarians, Ms. Farinacci, she got me into biking in the city when I first moved here. And we had a lot of books laying around that we couldn’t put into our library at school — public libraries are really overwhelmed with book donations— and we didn’t have a “little free library,” so we thought, wouldn’t it be funny if we had a little free library on a bike? When we were goofing off we would draw little sketches, so that’s kind of how the idea came to be.

It’s inspired by other mobile libraries, also a librarian in Colombia [with] two donkeys, named Alfa and Beto like alphabet… There’s also elephant libraries in Thailand, camel libraries in Mongolia, and boat libraries in Europe that I always thought were really cool. 

I don’t have a camel or a horse or anything like that, but I had a bike, so I just went for it.

What do you hope for the impact of the Bibliobicicleta to be?

I’ve thought about this a lot. I just want to bring some joy in a world where things can be kind of sad all the time. A burst of unexpected joy in people’s day…

Of all my different jobs and roles, the Bibliobicicleta brings me the most joy. It’s just so organic, and I meet all kinds of people, and it’s free and fun.

How is biking through hilly San Francisco with a trailer full of books?

Definitely sketchy. It’s always an adventure: you never know what you’re going to encounter. It’s scary, for sure. With the huge trailer following me and my little flag, I hope people see it, and that drivers will give me a little more room… Thankfully, I have an e-bike; when I first started the Biblio I didn’t have an e-bike and that was really hard. 

….I definitely go around steeper hills, and I use all of the bike lanes and the slow streets. All of those have been a real blessing, because I definitely feel safer on those streets.

What was the process of building the Bibliobicicleta?

I drew a lot of pictures at first, and laughed at them. I also started off with just my mountain bike and my basket in front. I would put books in the basket and a sign that said ‘free books’. Then, when I started thinking about the trailer, I [thought] I don’t have spare money for this, so I started a Kickstarter campaign. It got funded [surprisingly] quickly. Then three years after the initial trailer was built, I did another Kickstarter for the e-bike. The company Public Bikes, when they realized I was crowdfunding, was nice enough to give half off of the bike.

I also did a lot of research. There was a library bike from the Oakland public library that was very similar… I reached out to that librarian and she told me who she worked with to build the trailer. I thought he’d just make another one for me, and I regrettably was so naïve. I gave him some money, we worked out the plan, had some deadlines. I figured I didn’t need a contract, that this was it, and I never saw that trailer. It really sucked. It was so heartbreaking because I couldn’t believe that that would happen — that someone would take publicly funded money and not return on that. I did manage to get it done; I found another carpenter on TaskRabbit and he came through and I had enough money for it. 

Rolling with the punches and not giving up was really crucial. There were a lot of challenges. In the end, it’s cool when you have a wacky idea like that, to think you can send it out into the universe and there are people with money that are happy to see it come to life.

Do you ever curate the books you bring out?

Yeah, I do. Because the Biblio serves such a wide range of people, I don’t have to do too much, but I definitely don’t put textbooks or books that are deteriorating. Of course I have a tiny bit of bias, but if there’s a highly offensive book I don’t put it out there. I don’t come across those a lot. Even books where people are canceling the author — Harry Potter, for example — I’ll still put on the shelf. And you know, people pick it up and they’ll say something about it, and I’ll engage in that conversation, but people still love the story and it’s hard to negotiate and hold that conflict sometimes. 

I have to think about if i’m going somewhere intentionally — like next Saturday I’m going to this cute female-owned bakery Le Dix-Sept in the Mission, so I need to think about culinary books… If I’m going to the children’s playground I’ll make sure I have tons of children’s books. One of the regular gigs is in the Tenderloin, and for that I’ll have a variety of books. If I find books in different languages that’s always a win, because that community is so diverse. 

How do you plan your route?

The Biblio rollin’ around the Presidio (Alicia Tapia)

It’s all kind of sporadic. I try to [ask myself] ‘do I have enough energy to give right now’ because if I’m out there hating it, it’s not going to be fun for anyone. Usually once I commit to someone else, I’ll definitely be there. If people reach out and they want the Biblio to show up somewhere, then I’ll plan a route. And my routes go around whichever street is easiest, or flattests, or least likely to cause me an accident. 

How long have you been doing this?

The original mountain bike with the basket on the front [started in] 2014.

Do you have any favorite stories you want to share?

During a Slow Streets day with the Biblio in the Richmond, Dr. Tapia exchanges a book for a strawberry crepe (Alicia Tapia)

In general, the Biblio has opened up a way of meeting new people in the city. People approach me and want to talk about it, and it’s always fun to carry on the conversation or deepen a relationship… You get to see the full range of people in San Francisco. 

[Laughs] I’m thinking of all the near crashes, nothing too crazy, thank god. I always hope that there’s a guardian angel that has my back when I’m biking. 

I’m thinking of the return customers. When I’m in the Tenderloin, I’ll always have a good young adult book, and out of nowhere this girl will just … run down and get THE book. She doesn’t really stay and chat, just says “can I have this, okay thank you” then runs back, but it’s cool because I curate for her. I’ll think of what the students here like to read, and I’ll think maybe she’ll like to read that too. She’s read all of our One School One Book books. Yeah, I want to ask her her name next time. She comes to mind.

…All I see when I think of the people I’ve met is just a blur of smiles. Young and old, chatty people, it reminds me why I love this city so much, and why I moved here. The Biblio’s so wacky, and that’s the San Francisco I was attracted to. 

Where do you get the books for the Biblio from?

Lots of people at SHC donate books to me. Just random people in the community. Like Ms. Villa, her mom will buy new books, read them, and give them to me, so I have a fresh stack of new books all the time from her. 

Dr. Tapia and the Bibliobicicleta run into her old friend (Alicia Tapia)

It’s hard because a lot of people want to dump books on me, and sometimes I have too many books so I have to kindly refuse. But it’s nice to keep those lines open, so when I do need books, I’ll reach out to them. There’s never a shortage of books.

All of these [points to office shelves] are books that I’m planning to bring to the Biblio. Those books down there are from Mr. Barnes. 

My source is people like you, who are looking to clear books or shelf space at home.

How frequently do you bring out the Biblio, where do you go, and what does distribution look like?

It depends on my mood that day. Sometimes after work I’ll go to the Tenderloin with my own book, and set up the Biblio then take a seat and read my own book or chill. Other times, like if it’s on a Slow Street and there’s pedestrians, it’s hard for me to even move a block, because so many people stop to take a book. I always tell people to take as many as they want, because that lightens my load on the way home. 

And how often: it’s been sporadic. When I’m not so busy, it’s once a week or once every other week. When I’m really busy I have to prioritize and so unfortunately I have to put the Biblio on pause. But it always comes back. Earlier this year, I didn’t do it for three months because I was so overwhelmed at work, but I always miss it…

There’s so many people that support it, too. I started a Patreon account, because people were trying to support me. I didn’t need any books, and they asked how else to support me. I had no idea. Someone in the Mission at that bakery asked, “Have you heard of Patreon? If you set that up I would give you money so you can get money every month.” So I signed up and didn’t expect people to do that. It’s nice to feel that if something ever happens to the bike or I need to make a new one, I have a savings account for the Biblio that will help me buy a new bike or do whatever comes up.

Is there anything you hope SHC students will take from this interview?

When I look out [of my library office window] and I see how busy everyone is, I hope they take some time to think about what’s bringing them joy… Then ask how you can transform that into service that is also fun for you. Because that would really enrich students’ lives, and I know everyone is young and very busy. I often have to remind myself, I’m not a machine in the system, it’s not all about grading, or getting things done. 

I hope people… put themselves out there, and do something crazy in the name of service, because you never know what that’s going to transform into in your life.

Stories hold the power to transport us to other worlds and to bring us together, and Dr. Tapia is doing both for people all around San Francisco.