At 5,745 square miles, Box Elder County's borders stretch from Idaho on the north to Tooele County and Great Salt Lake on the south, and from Cache and Weber counties on the east to Nevada on the west. There are a few towns along the mountains and major roads, but the vast areas to the west are filled with large farms and ranches, sagebrush and desert.
Every other Monday, bookmobile driver Brad Rhodes makes the long trip from the home office in Willard to Grouse Creek. It's 187 miles, one way, and the last 24 miles are over gravel roads -- which are sometimes fine and sometimes muddy.
But the day the Box Elder County bookmobile comes is one many folks look forward to.
"Some of those people can go weeks without seeing anybody, and the bookmobile, for them, is better than the ice cream man -- people come running out and are so excited about it," said LuAnn Adams, the Box Elder County commissioner who oversees the bookmobile program.
"It saves us," said Teresa Roberts, a patron from Thatcher. "We're readers."
Box Elder County does not own a brick-and-mortar library. In comparison, Davis County, at just under 299 square miles and the smallest county in the state, has seven libraries. Weber, the third-smallest county, has five.
Three cities in Box Elder County -- Brigham City, Garland and Tremonton -- have fixed-site libraries. County residents outside those city boundaries can get library cards by paying a fee of $10 a year in Garland, $20 in Tremonton, or $60 to use the Brigham City Library.
"I can't afford to pay for it every year," said Anna Ostler, of Perry.
The county just seems too big, and its people too spread out, to build libraries.
"It's just huge," Adams said. "I think having it on wheels is probably a cheaper way to do it."
The bookmobile Rhodes drives carries about 6,000 books. Phillip Lee, the other driver, pilots a truck and trailer with about 7,500 books.
If the county did build libraries near larger population centers, it likely wouldn't help the smaller communities on the north and west ends of the county.
"Those people have big farms out there, and they pay more property tax," said Lee. "They've got rights, so we spend the time out there, and balance it, and take the books out to the people instead of having people come to the books."
There is one more advantage to mobile libraries, according to the bookmobile drivers: If demographics change and a stop dries up, the bookmobile can easily move to a new location.
Locally, the number of bookmobiles is decreasing.
"We used to have a lot of them," said Lynnda Wangsgard, director of the Weber County Library. "But after the Ogden Valley branch opened, the majority of our users had fixed-site libraries."
With only 300 patrons still using the Weber County bookmobile, it was no longer economical.
Davis County had two bookmobiles for many years, through a contract with the Utah State Library. By the late 1980s, state budget cuts left the county operating one bookmobile on its own. As in Weber County, eventually more libraries were built, and bookmobile use went down. Facing rising fuel and repair costs, it was decided to end bookmobile service in 2002.
"The bookmobile itself literally died on the road, and could not complete its schedule," Chris Sanford, director of the Davis County Library, wrote in an email.
The Utah State Library still operates eight bookmobiles, by contract with commissioners in 13 counties: Carbon, Iron, Millard, Sanpete and Utah have one bookmobile each, while one serves Cache and Rich, another covers Garfield, Kane and Piute, and the final bookmobile delivers to Sevier, Juab and Wayne counties.
Tooele recently cancelled service because of budget woes, and San Juan ended its contract with the state because county officials chose to create several small satellite libraries instead.
Down the road
Across the U.S. there was a big decline in the number of bookmobiles during the 1970s, because of the oil embargo, said Martha Buckner of Ashland, Ohio, president of the Association of Bookmobile & Outreach Services.
Small declines continued during the 1990s, but now, according to information from the American Library Association, the number of bookmobiles in the U.S. is on the rise. There were 825 in 2005, and 930 in 2008.
"Libraries can provide service to a lot of people using a mobile library that is cheaper than building branches," said Buckner.
Another reason for the increase is a change of focus. Some libraries are creating specialty outreach units, she said, such as a bookmobile for storytime or one specifically for seniors.
Part of the increase is also due to changes in technology.
"Some libraries are switching from a traditional bookmobile to units that provide electronic classroom-type service where there are computers onboard and they can teach computer classes, or it's a mobile computer lab where people can come on and access the Internet," Buckner said.
The Utah State Library system has modernized its bookmobiles, with computer stations offering access to the Internet, and software and resources for everything from job hunting to family history research.
Box Elder's bookmobiles carry DVDs and CDs, in addition to books, but Rhodes says there are no plans to add computer stations.
"You take away hundreds of books to make room for a computer station, and most of us have our computers here anymore," he said, holding a cellphone.
Although some rural communities may need Internet access through state bookmobiles, Rhodes says most of the ranchers along his routes have access at home. He did a survey in Grouse Creek about six years ago, and all but one of his patrons had Internet service. The one who didn't was an elderly woman who didn't want it.
With all of that technology, folks could skip a trip to the bookmobile by downloading e-books, but Lee and Rhodes say they haven't seen a decrease in patrons.
"Some patrons have discontinued coming to the bookmobile because they have e-books, but there are still plenty that want it," said Lee.
Many of those who use the bookmobile are parents who want to read with their children.
"It's a touchy-feely thing. They want to grasp a book in their hand, and if that's old fashioned, then I'm old-fashioned, because I love it, too," said Rhodes.
More than a library
Adams says bookmobiles are more than just a library on wheels. "It's a connection with people," she said.
Blaine Oman started using the bookmobile about 50 years ago, as a boy in Yost.
"Other than the small school library, you didn't have anything out there you could read, unless you went into town and bought a book. It was pretty important," he said. "That's where I picked up my desire to read. They had a really good guy that drove the bookmobile, and he would suggest a book that I was interested in."
Now an "older kid," and living in Thatcher, he still looks forward to regular bookmobile visits.
Tina Lerohl, of Mantua, grew up with bookmobiles, and hopes they'll always be on the road.
"It would be sad to see them go," she said. "I think it's a neat thing to have, and kind of keeps the history alive."
"I feel sorry for communities that have lost their bookmobiles. There is a nostalgia and excitement when the bookmobile rolls into town and starts honking its horn," he said.