Posted 7:06 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022
Alum starts mobile library serving Viroqua
Having spent her career in schools and libraries, Mary Mulvaney-Kemp has seen books transform lives.
But what happens when someone can’t make it to the library?
Apparently, you bring the library to them.
Mulvaney-Kemp, an ’82 health and physical education graduate, is the founder and operator of RedLou Library in Viroqua — a volunteer-run library on wheels delivering reading opportunities to people of all ages.
The red and white van, stocked with hundreds of titles from an array of genres, has made regular stops at Viroqua-area daycares, assisted-living facilities and the Vernon Area Rehabilitation Center since first hitting the road in fall 2021.
It’s an innovative solution to a problem Mulvaney-Kemp observed for years, first as a school reading specialist and later as a youth services director and outreach coordinator at a library: unequal access to reading materials.
“I noticed that kids fell off in the summer, and it really bothered me,” she explains. “I wanted to start a mobile library that would go around during the summer, but it didn’t work out at the time. Then, when I started at the library, I noticed that it’s not just children who have access issues with reading materials. Adults, particularly seniors, have issues, too.”
Mulvaney-Kemp’s vision might have remained exactly that, had it not been for a simple request from her late mother.
“My dad passed away many years ago, and my mom died in December 2019,” Mulvaney-Kemp says. “When she died, she left each of the kids some money and said, ‘Try to do good with it.’ It was the perfect time for me to do good.”
Mulvaney-Kemp worked with a local dealership to find a vehicle, which underwent extensive renovations and detailing so it would look the part.
In the meantime, she put out a call for gently used books and cash donations, and slowly but surely, built the collection.
The mobile library seemed more and more real by the day.
Mulvaney-Kemp called it “RedLou” — in honor of her father (nicknamed Red) and her mother (Louise).
While she was excited to see her dream realized, she kept her expectations in check.
“When it started, I thought we would do 200 or 300 checkouts a month,” she says. “Our first month, we had 460 checkouts. The reception was amazing. I said, ‘What’s going on?’”
RedLou Library has grown in popularity and usage each month. Since November 2021, more than 8,000 items have been checked out.
Mulvaney-Kemp is delighted to see enthusiasm among children and families, especially given the importance of developing literacy skills at an early age.
“The parents of children at daycare centers have been grateful because finding books for their kids is now one less thing they need to do during the week,” she explains. “When we show up, the kids get so excited to look at the books. This is giving them a positive attitude about reading, which makes them more likely to be readers as they get older. One thing I tell all the kids is, even if you’re just looking at pictures, you’re still reading the book.”
The impact on older communities is equally powerful.
RedLou stops at assisted living and memory care facilities, meeting a critical need at the opposite end of the age spectrum.
“The elderly, I didn’t know there would be such an impact,” Mulvaney-Kemp says. “They’re so appreciative and happy when they’re browsing the library. It gives them back that little bit of independence and control.”
Because mobile libraries are typically found in large cities, it’s rather unusual to have this service in the Viroqua area. (RedLou Library is autonomous from other library systems and is the endeavor of RedLou Inc, a 501(c)(3) organization.)
Mulvaney-Kemp initially worried the idea might be too abstract and unusual to gain traction. But that hasn’t been the case.
“This is kind of a novel idea,” Mulvaney-Kemp says, noting that it wouldn’t be possible without her team of student and adult volunteers. “There aren’t many rural communities that have something like this.”
It’s too early to tell if RedLou will improve literacy or educational outcomes in Viroqua. However, to Mulvaney-Kemp, igniting a spark in so many readers has been gratification enough.
“All these years, it’s something I knew would work if I gave it a shot,” she says. “I’m excited to see what’s down the road.”