From Iceland — The Chief Of Reykjavík

The Chief Of Reykjavík

Published May 21, 2014

A Ride-along on the City Bookmobile

The Chief Of Reykjavík
Larissa Kyzer
Photo by
Nanna Dís

A Ride-along on the City Bookmobile

I clearly remember the day, just over a year ago, when I first saw the Reykjavík bookmobile (bókabíll) parked on a side street in my secluded seaside neighbourhood. So incongruous was this enormous bright blue city bus covered with whimsical illustrations of grinning children and flying books that I don’t think I’d have been any more surprised if I’d have turned the corner and found the Tardis standing there. Its windows were fogged but cheerfully lit, and when I cautiously knocked on the door, it opened slowly, emitting a pneumatic hiss reminiscent of a made-for-TV space ship. 

Although Höfðinginn, or “The Chief” as it is officially known, is a fully 21st century mobile library tricked out with WiFi and circulating CDs and DVDs along with its books and magazines, there is something immediately and irrevocably nostalgic about the very idea of a bookmobile. Not unlike an ice cream truck, it inspires a sort of childlike joy in me. And so, having never actually been in a bookmobile in my home country, I decided to hitch a ride and get to know The Chief of Reykjavík.

The Library Comes To You

On the bright winter day of my ride-along, I headed to the Kringlan branch library, which manages and maintains the bookmobile. It was just after lunchtime and as there was still a little time before The Chief was scheduled to depart, I was invited to share in coffee and biscuits. The librarians—all women save Guttormur, a library technician and my chaperone for the day—politely inquired about my time in Iceland and my studies (I garnered some approving hums when I mentioned my own library degree), before giving me a basic rundown of the day’s route, which would travel through a couple of the city’s further-flung neighbourhoods. 

Counting two reciprocal locations in the nearby towns of Mosfellsbær and Seltjanarnes, the Reykjavík City Library is comprised of eight branches situated around the greater capital area. With much of the city’s population residing in sprawling suburbs, however, library patrons may live quite a distance from the nearest branch. And so, Höfðinginn picks up the slack, making weekly rounds to around 40 additional locations. 

The goal is to ensure that there is never more than one kilometre between a patron’s home and a library, be it a ‘brick-and-mortar’ branch, or a bookmobile stop. “The bookmobile completes the library ‘net’ in Reykjavík,” Dóra Thoroddsen, the head librarian at the Kringlan branch, later explained. “If you can’t come to the library, the library comes to you.”

Beyond simply ensuring that residents don’t have to travel very far to get to a library branch, the bookmobile is also intended to be a resource for underserved populations, such as the elderly, residents of new suburban housing developments, schools that don’t have their own libraries, and care homes for disabled people. Every year, its route is reconsidered and new stops are added, as needed. “The plan is in constant renewal,” Dóra explained. 

Back at the library lunch table, our conversation comfortably lulled. “Jájá,” someone said, smacking her knees lightly. “You will go very far out today.” And then, as if by consensus, everyone stood and cleared away their lunch packets and my now-empty cup of coffee. Guttormur glanced at his watch and I put on my coat, but not before several librarians made sure I was aware that there were no ‘facilities’ on the bus. “It is recommended that you use the toilet,” one said gently, shrugging. “Because we are mothers.”


A Storied History

The Chief was parked outside the branch, driverless, but waiting with an air of expectancy. Guttormur wasn’t fussed. “We’re usually a little late,” he joked, and then began to fill me in on the several lives that the bookmobile has lead since its birth in 1969.

The Chief standing before us was actually The Chief II, or The Chief, Jr., if you prefer, having taken over the title and duties from its predecessor in 2000. The first Chief was actually a decommissioned and remodelled city bus, and was the first of its kind in Iceland. (For the record, the current Reykjavík bookmobile is still the only one in the country—a shame, perhaps, given how handy one of these would be for residents living in more isolated villages in the countryside.)

In its first 10 years, The Chief circulated an astounding 2,400,000 items, sometimes close to a thousand in one day. In fact, over the course of one particularly busy route during those golden years, the bookmobile loaned out 1,800 items, amounting to over half the bus’s stock. No wonder then, that up until the early ‘70s, there were always three librarians on board to help patrons.

Not surprisingly, the circulation demand has declined over the years, and, as Guttormur explained, this is basically the fault of the VHS tape. When The Chief started making its rounds, people living in the countryside—as many of the outlying Reykjavík suburbs could have reasonably been termed, even into the late ‘70s and early ‘80s—had pretty limited options of what to do with their leisure time. So the bookmobile acted as many people’s primary source of entertainment. Then, in the ‘80s, people started buying VCRs and progressively, spent more time watching movies in the evenings than reading. 

Nevertheless, the bookmobile still does a pretty brisk business today: in 2012, a total of 16,396 items were circulated from the bus; 13,228 were loaned in 2013. Circulations are particularly high in the outlying districts of Laugarnes, Grafarvogur, and Kjalarnes, the latter of which is situated at the base of Mount Esja about 18 kilometres outside of downtown Reykjavík, and, with under 900 inhabitants, is the city’s least populous district. 

The Captain Of The Chief

Guttormur had just finished filling me in on the bookmobile’s background when its captain appeared: the jolly Bjarni Björnsson who has been driving the bookmobile since it started running 44 years ago. (He splits shifts, actually, with his younger brother Bragi, who himself has driven the bookmobile for 39 years.) Bjarni shook my hand, opened the bus doors, and grandly gestured me inside. 

With only two seatbelts up front, I was directed to a bench seat in the very rear of the bus, sandwiched between two tightly packed shelves of children’s picture books and YA novels. There was quite a mix of titles, in both Icelandic and English. From my vantage, I recognised Pippi Longstocking, Harry Potter, Moomins, and Nancy Drew in the kids section, as well as cookbooks, travel guides to Mediterranean locales, fashion magazines, and about 25 non-consecutive volumes of the ever-popular Norwegian medieval adventure romance series ‘Ísfólkið’ (“The Ice People”). As the bus pulled out of the parking lot, the radio started playing quietly from the corner speaker above me, a mix of Rat Pack standards. 

Our first 45-minute stop was just out front of a community centre in the suburb of Breiðholt. Thick sheets of ice had built up over the course of three or four consecutive thaws and (re)freezes, forcing Bjarni to execute what amounted to a twelve point turn; he didn’t want anyone approaching the bus to slip and slide across the ice to enter. 

All that remained was to wait. Bjarni stepped outside to take the air while Guttormur shelved some new material (each day the collection is replenished with new material from the library, and any holds that patrons have requested to pick up on-board). Guttormur enjoyed working on the bookmobile, he said, because you really get to know the regular patrons. He spoke of one elderly woman in particular who had “very advanced tastes.” Every week, she arrived with a long list of book titles in her diary—“lots of translated fiction or South American authors”—and would set both him and Bjarni to work pulling things off the shelves or writing down requests for the following week. He was filling in for someone today, he admitted, so he wouldn’t know as much about the stops or the people as he would otherwise. But he assured me that Bjarni would know the answer to absolutely anything I wanted to know.  

I thought he meant just about the bus itself, and possibly the bookmobile route, but as it turned out, Bjarni’s expertise was in no way limited to library matters. I asked him a few dull questions in English, which Guttormur dutifully translated—mostly just a little chitchat about the black and white photos of the bus, which were hanging on the wall. But the second I made a rather bashful attempt to address him in Icelandic, Bjarni became totally and immediately animated, and very generous with my stilted speaking skills. Determining that I could understand more than I could say, he launched into a crash course in the history of the Icelandic language and a quick run-down of Icelandic emigration to Canada. “There are Icelanders everywhere,” he ended with satisfaction, before returning to the driver’s seat. 

Norðlingaholt: The Lakeside Neighbourhood

No one showed up at the first stop, so we buckled back in and headed to the next place on our itinerary, the Norðlingaholt neighbourhood in the Árbær district. The neighbourhood is organised into concentric circles, with the square town homes and stocky, boxy apartment buildings on the outside and a school and day-care centre on the innermost ring. Rauðavatn (“Red Lake”), stands just beyond this cluster, which residents enjoy biking and jogging around, or even canoeing or ice skating across, depending on the season. Just moments after the bus door opened, a few clusters of preteen girls clambered up the stairs and headed straight for a series of chapter books. There was a heated discussion as to whether they could be read out of order, as one of the first titles was missing. 

While they applied to Guttormur to settle the matter, another young girl came in and made herself comfortable on the bench with a stack of novels. She browsed through each before making her way up to the counter and asking Guttormur, who still had his hands full with the teen book club, for a specific title. So Bjarni stepped in, sorting through a stack of books in the front to find the one she was looking for, and even making some recommendations of other books on the shelves. The girl left, happily loaded down with a substantial pile.

Úlfarsárdalur: Ghost Town On The Upswing

Our last stop of the afternoon—after which the bus would head back to the library for a coffee break before going back out on evening rounds—was in the Úlfarsárdalur suburb. This time, kids were actually running to the bus as it pulled into the parking lot—boys and girls both standing, literally breathless, outside of the bookmobile doors. (Be still, my librarian heart.) They entered in a rush, while Bjarni took me outside to point out things around the neighbourhood. 

Úlfarsárdalur, I learned, is considered something of a ghost town today. Once home to three military barracks which housed over a thousand people during WWII, it was hoped, in the pre-crash years, that it would become a neighbourhood in touch with nature and eventually home to as many as 18,000 active, outdoorsy types. The crash hit Úlfarsárdalur hard, however, leaving a good many of the homes half built or uninhabited. 

Today, after the city pledged to help build the suburb up with facilities such as a swimming pool and an expanded elementary school, 662 people live there, with an expected eventual population of 3,500. Without a nearby library, it seems that many locals are regulars on the bookmobile. A handful of parents and adults browsed and chatted while the wave of children gleefully pulled books off the shelves, flipping through them, and discarding them quickly. With Guttormur busy up front, Bjarni stood behind patiently, re-shelving in their wake. 

He laughed, clearly delighted. “It’s always this crowded at this stop.”

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