On most days, twenty-eight-year-old Alicia Tapia works as a private school librarian in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, constantly surrounded by books and the young minds in which she instills a love for reading. Tapia is also the proud creator of Bibliobicicleta, a mobile bicycle library that hands out free books to people of all ages. The Bibliobicicleta motto? “To promote a love of learning and literacy: page by page, book by book, pedal by pedal.”
Inspired in part by the Little Free Library movement, Bibliobicicleta is a completely independent, donation-based library. Tapia first began toying with the idea in 2010 while studying to become a librarian at the University of Hawaii. “Someone asked me, ‘How do you say librarian in Spanish?’ The word is bibliotecario. I told him, and he was like, ‘What? Bibliotaqueria?’ So for the longest time I had this silly idea to start a taco truck that’s also a library, so people can read and eat tacos. Then I thought if people are eating tacos and reading, they’re going to fall asleep.”
It wasn’t until the Hawaii native moved to San Francisco and made friends with another bike-loving librarian that the idea for Bibliobicicleta came to fruition: “We kind of joked about it like, ‘Wouldn’t it be really funny if we had a library on the back of our bikes?’” The idea would continue to resurface for weeks until one day Tapia decided enough was enough. “I was so tired of talking about it and decided to just do it. Then I put a Kickstarter up.”
Her Kickstarter project became fully funded in December 2013, raising $2,236 over its month-long course—exceeding her original goal of $650 in less than a week. With the help of over 100 backers, what was once an inside joke had become a fully supported project. The money was raised in order to create a customized bookshelf-trailer, one that could easily be attached to Tapia’s day-to-day commuter bicycle.
The trailer was quickly found through Bikes at Work, a bicycle cargo trailer manufacturer out of Iowa. Constructing the wooden bookshelf for the trailer, however, proved to be a more challenging task. After the original builder backed out of the project, Tapia decided to place an ad on TaskRabbit. There she would meet Jasper Montgomery. “We talked about the vision of it and he really improved it,” Tapia explains. His design allowed for airflow to pass through the bookshelves, greatly increasing mobility—especially on windy bike rides.
Tapia, who also holds her master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Washington, can often be seen parked around the Panhandle, in addition to San Francisco’s various Sunday Streets events. “Free books!” she proclaims to fellow bike riders, joggers, and families who pass by—some will stop and take a book; some drop books off. The shelves hold a variety of fiction and non-fiction for both children and adults. The titles are constantly changing as books exchange hands, taken off of the shelves as often as they are replaced.
The response for Bibliobicicleta has been overwhelmingly positive over the course of its first year. “Kids are my weak spot, obviously. It’s why I teach,” says Tapia. “The first time I took it out, this little girl walked by and said, ‘That is the prettiest bookshelf I’ve ever seen.’ That made it all worthwhile. By seeing this crazy bookshelf, that kid is going to think that reading is something that’s important—reading is something cool.”
Tapia continues to find inspiration for Bibliobicicleta from other unique free libraries around the world. While on her honeymoon in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tapia had a chance encounter with one of her favorite mobile libraries: a book-covered tank known as Weapons of Mass Instruction. She describes
the moment as “nothing short of magic.” Her most notable inspiration is the Biblioburro, a Columbian traveling library that donates its books on the backs of two donkeys. “This guy takes his two burros, Alfa and Beto, to remote villages where they don’t have access to books,” she explains. “That’s what inspires me: when you take books to the people who need them the most.” Tapia plans to eventually take Bibliobicicleta on a long-distance ride south through Mexico, as part of a similar effort to bring books to areas with less access.
Although bookmobiles are nothing new (the concept has been around for over 150 years), innovative mobile libraries like Bibliobicicleta are perhaps more important now than ever before. Tapia describes her take on the impact of modern technology on the written word: “Our parents kind of let us put the book down,” she explains. “I think now we’re coming back around. I appreciate all of the information we can get from the Internet, but nothing takes the place of a good book. It’s not you and all of these other things that can distract you. It’s just you and the book.”
For more information visit www.bibliobicicleta.com
Text by Brett Leader
Photography by Megan Moura