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Oh, the places she’ll go

KU help gives public library a vehicle to extend reach beyond downtown

by STEVEN HILL

“We asked you to cut a giant hole in a brand-new truck, and look what you did: You are creative geniuses who took a blank canvas of a step van and transformed it into Dottie,” Lawrence Public Library head Brad Allen said, thanking KU architecture students and their professor, Nils Gore, at the ribbon cutting for the library’s new outreach vehicle in August. Photograph by Steven Hill.

The Lawrence Public Library’s new truck, a Ford step van customized by architecture professor Nils Gore and his third-year students, will allow the library to expand its outreach services to neighborhoods all across Lawrence.

And while “bookmobile” might be the term that leaps to mind when viewing the big red-and-white truck emblazoned with the library’s distinctive graphics, that’s only part of the story, according to Brad Allen, the library’s executive director.

“As you see it deployed right now, it clearly looks like our vision of a bookmobile,” Allen, c’97, said during the library’s Aug. 20 Last Bash party, where Dottie—the name selected for the vehicle from dozens submitted by library patrons—attracted throngs of young readers drawn to the exterior shelving crammed with books at just the right height for kids to browse.

“But in a real maximalist way we talked about trying to make it like a Swiss Army knife,” Allen said. “What all kinds of things could it do? Could it be a thing that checks out books? Could you roll out a carpet and do story time? That was the premise we started with.”

From there, Gore’s students were asked to design a mobile tool with the flexibility to deliver as many of those functions as possible.

“Brad didn’t want just a bookmobile, so the idea is not to have space for people to sit inside, but to store as much as possible and provide counter space so they can hand out things like books, water or food,” says Hannah Froehle, one of 18 students who made early prototypes of the vehicle. The class concentrated on maximizing interior storage by designing cabinets to create a space that is “super clean and organized.”

Design started in January 2021, as students were dealing with pandemic disruptions.
“It was in the heat of COVID, and COVID hit everybody really hard,” Froehle says. “Having that truck to work on, something that benefits the community, a public works project, really kept my head above water. I’m definitely very grateful for that experience.”

The following summer Gore hired Froehle and another student to help him build out the truck’s custom touches, which include cabinetry, the exterior bookshelf and a retractable hatch that creates a large service window. Supply chain delays complicated construction, continually pushing back deadlines and forcing students to adapt and innovate. They even manufactured some of their own plywood due to lumber shortages.

The finished Dottie, which made her debut with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Last Bash, owes much to the students’ early prototyping work.

“A lot,” Gore says of their impact on the design. “Maybe not in the details, but that wasn’t really their task. I have an image the students produced early on, and it’s really close to what the end result looks like.”

As Dottie makes the rounds, circulating the library collection and handing out free books through Dr. Bob READS, a book giveaway created in memory of the late KU Athletics Director Bob Frederick, d’62, g’64, PhD’84, library staff hope to learn all the ways this Swiss Army knife can be used.

“The idea is to go out in the community and get a better sense of how we serve our public outside of this building,” Allen said. “I think we do a good job here at Seventh and Vermont, but we know there are lots of people we aren’t catching or not catching as often. So really the spirit of Dottie is going out and trying to learn.”

Photo gallery by Dan Storey

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