Three times a week, Jodi Christophe and Jessica Zephyrs hit the road to bring the joys of reading and the wonders of the Internet to the many corners of Missoula County.
As strange as it looks – and sounds – the converted school bus the duo travel in is also a “branch” of the Missoula Public Library.
What is called the W.O.W. Bus is a rolling library with a comfy living room-like interior that offers free hardback books, computer use and access to the main library services, which include free downloadable books, music and, as of July 1, 78 different magazines.
The librarians also provide free computer instruction on the bus’s many laptops.
“We love working here,” Christophe said Tuesday morning while the bus was parked at the Union Gospel Mission in Missoula before rolling on to the Potomac-Greenough Community Center.
“We get to work one-on-one with people, and we get to interact with a lot of senior citizens who are intimidated by technology.”
The bus service is targeted to “tech newbies” – to people who want to learn about computer and Internet use – but it is also a way to get more people aware of all the things the Missoula Public Library offers.
The library, Zephyrs said, isn’t just about books.
Along with providing people with computer access and education, the main library at 301 E. Main St. offers a smorgasbord of services that include a vast array of classes, everything from how to use a sewing machine to 3-D scanning, to printing U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps of Montana and Idaho.
“And it’s all free,” she said. “As long as people have identification, it’s free to get a library card.”
No one needs to have a library card to use the bus, which, for the first time, is parked each Saturday at the Clark Fork Market.
Now in its second year, the bus serves about 125 people a month, year-round, but last Saturday at the Missoula market 597 people used the bus’s services or had questions for the librarians, Christophe said.
“We would like serve more people,” she said, “and the biggest obstacle for this program is exposure – people don’t know what the bus is.
“It is a mobile computer lab; we have books for all ages, including easy-to-read large-type books for visually impaired readers; and we do a lot of helping people connect with their family and friends on email and Facebook.”
What used to be a place where talking was silenced and peopled buried their noses in hardback books has evolved into the modern library, Christophe said.
These days, libraries are dynamic places of learning and exploration, and sometimes, they even travel.
“It’s all about access and making sure everyone has access to what they need to be a productive member of society,” she said. “Computer literacy is not just about social interaction with family and friends; many national businesses and box stores require people to fill out applications online.
“You need email in today’s world, and while you may have all the skills in the world, if you don’t have basic computer skills to apply for a job, no one will know about you.”
While finding book titles and research materials is still part their job, librarians’ work now includes helping people navigate online military forms. Recently, the W.O.W. bus librarians assisted Missoula Aging Services clients with filing federal housing credits online.
The diversity of the work and the days on the road make the job exciting and rewarding, Zephyrs said.
“What I enjoy is that you get to know the people in all the communities we serve – you create bonds with community members like the family that brings us muffins and flowers every week when we show up,” she said. “The appreciation we feel is incredible.”