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Two vans are parked next to one another in the street behind the Bronx Terminal Market in New York. While they look similar, their aims are quite different. The first, on this first warm day of the year, is dispensing iced treats. The second is here for an altogether more studious (but no less enjoyable) purpose. It’s a bold move to go up against Mister Softee when the sun is shining but the New York Public Library’s new Bookmobile is doing a roaring trade despite the ice-cream van. People are lined up at the window of the gleaming red Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, leafing through books and jotting their details down in exchange for library cards.

Travelling libraries run by the NYPL used to be a staple of city life but haven’t been seen on the streets since 1983. Today is the first outing of their return (the revival owing to refurbishments that will temporarily close five of the original Andrew Carnegie-funded library branches in the coming years). “It’s cool and romantic to be walking down the sidewalk and stop by,” says Dan Landsman, who helped oversee the new Bookmobile customer experience, as he stands near the van dressed in a black “Libraries make NYC stronger” T-shirt.

The Bookmobile van will serve Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island (Brooklyn and Queens have their own library services). The latest iteration doesn’t have the aesthetic appeal of the original NYPL bookmobiles, some of which were boardable and had a hatch on the side that lifted to reveal inbuilt bookshelves (the new model has mobile shelves that are set up on the street). But Landsman argues that the “food-truck model” with its service window is already well known in New York, adding that the new van they use – currently one vehicle but increasing to three later in the year – is nimble enough to negotiate the traffic. And he should know: he’s attended a conference on library buses in North Carolina as part of his research.

Over on the roof of the mall, the Bookmobile has a table set up where it is organising readings. A lion mascot (inspired by the statues at the institution’s Manhattan flagship) has momentarily disappeared out of the relentless sun before gamely making a comeback, to the delight of a gaggle of kids. Events like this are proof that small-scale outreach can inspire New Yorkers who might be unaware of the amenities that libraries can offer.

As the system wrangles over a potential $11m (€9.8m) budget cut proposed by mayor Bill de Blasio for the next fiscal year, the Bookmobile’s role could become more central than ever. Meaning more people like six-year-old Mia Betancourt grinning over her first library card (her mother got one too), a copy of Frog and Toad Together firmly in her hands.

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