ASU students bring mobile libraries to Phoenix

Elijah Allan, along with with Jasmine Clarke-Teifer and Alex Miller, were inspired by food trucks and are now working towards developing “Bibliotrucka,” a mobile library concept. Photo courtesy of Andy DeLisie

Elijah Allan, along with with Jasmine Clarke-Teifer and Alex Miller, were inspired
by food trucks and are now working towards developing “Bibliotrucka,” a mobile library concept.
Photo courtesy of Andy DeLisie

Imagine walking through downtown Phoenix’s Food Truck Friday. The smells of savory barbecue and sweet fry bread fill the air. In the middle of it all, you find a mobile library.

This is the hope of three ASU students who want to make books more accessible to people across the community.

According to business urban policy and non-profit junior Jasmine Clarke-Telfer, 44 percent of charter schools in south Phoenix lack a critical school staple: a library.
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Working with conservation biology and ecology senior Elijah Allan and non-profit leadership and management senior Alex Miller, Clarke-Telfer and her partners are out to change that statistic.

Thus, BiblioTrucka was born. But it wasn’t so simple at first.

As part of their Change-Making in Education course, the three ASU students began to research just how common library-access issues were in their community. After finding out that Houston, a city comparable to Phoenix in size and population, boasts 41 public library branches, while Phoenix has a mere 13, the group realized this was a problem that affected their entire city, not just their partner school, The Espiritu National Football League Youth Education Towns (NFL YET) Academy.

U students Jasmine Clarke- Teifer and Alex Miller work one- on-one with NFL YET charter school students, to solve the library access issue. Photo courtesy of Andy DeLisie

U students Jasmine Clarke- Teifer and Alex Miller work one- on-one with NFL YET charter school students, to solve the library access issue.
Photo courtesy of Andy DeLisie

“I just couldn’t believe that it was a problem. I know about parental engagement as an issue and technology as an issue, but not having a library? I just thought it was kind of a staple of the school – a kind of fundamental thing that exists,” Clarke-Telfer says.

The team realized that their first plans to create a fundraiser or charity to raise money for a library for NFL YET were not going to solve the whole problem. In the beginning, they were nervous to tell the continually supportive administrators, teachers and students at the academy that they wanted to include other schools in their endeavor. However, they were surprised to find just how supportive the community was of the group’s plan.

But raising enough money to fund libraries at multiple charter schools was not feasible. They wracked their brains for a solution. Then, a passing comment sparked an idea that revolutionized their entire concept.

While visiting Vista College Preparatory as part of their research, Clarke-Telfer and Miller saw firsthand how the school dealt with their lack of a library. The school gave each student a small bag to attach to the back of his or her chair. The teachers then allowed students to enter a small room with a few bookshelves. They could check out one book at a time, but the selection was extremely limited. While explaining the system to the girls, one teacher jokingly referred to it as a sort of “mobile library.”

“She said those words and we all looked at each other like, ‘mobile library — that’s the answer!’ From there we realized that if we made this library mobile we could then not only serve the NFL YET, but we could serve other schools in the community,” Miller says.

Remembering that her hometown in Missouri had a bookmobile, Miller and the rest of her team began researching the cost of such a project. On average, the semi-truck-size car came close to $50,000 — slightly out of budget for a group of college students. They researched cheaper options when used food trucks began to pop-up, igniting the next vital component to the team’s plan.

“There’s a lot of places that once a food truck is not being used, they’ll get rid of it or just leave it sitting there,” Allan says. “We figure we’ll be able to reuse them and on top of that be able to catch on with the whole food truck craze that’s going on.” 

A mobile library in a food truck — this was manageable, and in the words of some students at NFL YET, “So cool!”

The NFL YET charter school students contribute ideas and provide criticism to the three ASU students who are working toward resolving the school’s accessibility to the library.  hoto courtesy of Andy DeLisie

The NFL YET charter school students contribute ideas and provide criticism to the three ASU students who are working toward resolving the school’s accessibility to the library.
hoto courtesy of Andy DeLisie

The mobile library concept is outstanding. Instead of having a stationary building, we would be able to transport books to children who otherwise may not be able to reach a library. A mobile library is similar to the food truck movement, but instead of nourishing one’s body we are nourishing their minds,” NFL YET assistant principal Adam Sharp says.

Keeping their community in mind, the group came up with the name “BiblioTrucka” to interest the largely Hispanic and Latino population in south Phoenix. But the BiblioTrucka idea can be applied to all communities and customized for each population. For example, Allan grew up in the Navajo Nation reservation. He hopes to apply the concept in his community, taking note of the specific needs and interests of those back home.

Unfortunately, BiblioTrucka lacks the necessary funding to take the giant leap from concept to reality. After the ASU Innovation Challenge became a no-go, the team felt a slight halt in their momentum.

“It’s kind of a set back, but for me it’s fuel for motivation. We’re going to do this. We’ve gotten so much attention from it and I think that’s proof enough that it’s a good idea,” Allan says.

Applying to the Clinton Global Initiative and numerous other organizations willing to fund social concepts, the founders of BiblioTrucka hope to receive funding soon. That way they can purchase a food truck, trick it out with shelves, solar panels and e-readers and possibly partner with the Phoenix Public Library. For now, they look towards the community.

“We’ve come so far but there are so many areas that we’re not experts in,” Miller says. “None of us has ever retrofitted a food truck before, so none of us really know what that process looks like. That’s where we’re definitely going to have to rely on the Phoenix community — finding those partners and those people who are willing to give up a few hours of their time or their resources to make this happen.”

Although they still have a ways to go in making BiblioTrucka come to life, the team hopes to have their project ready to run by the 2015-2016 school year. They plan to pair up with at least four other charter schools in south Phoenix to have BiblioTrucka visit each school one day per week.

Even though the upperclassmen are nearing graduation, they are all too passionate about BiblioTrucka to not see it through to completion.

“For me, I truly believe that education is the foundation for the rest of your life,” Clarke-Telfer says. “I think education inequity is a problem that can be solved in our lifetime. Anything I can do to take steps toward that goal, I’m going to do it.”

Reach the writer at adersch@asu.edu or @AlexDersch on Twitter