Antelope Lending Library faithfully serves Iowa City area for 10 years and counting

The Antelope Lending Library, a fee-free bookmobile, addresses inequity by literally meeting people where they are. The nonprofit also provides home delivery services and educational activities, and partners with other local organizations to maximize outreach.


Matt Sindt

Cassi Elton puts a book away in the Bookmobile on Sunday Nov. 20, 2022.

Charlotte McManus, Arts Reporter

Cassandra Elton first noticed the need for a bookmobile in Johnson County as a graduate student at the University of Iowa. While working toward her master’s in library and information science, she got a part-time job at an after-school program at Grant Wood Elementary School.

When she asked her students if they planned to participate in the Iowa City Public Library’s summer reading program, she was surprised to learn that many of them didn’t go downtown.

“It was such a shock to me because these are the exact kids and families that we want accessing these library services,” Elton said. “So, I talked to some of the parents, and they were all very excited about the idea of better connecting these kids with library services, especially during the summer.”

Elton created the Antelope Lending Library in 2012 and has been the founder and director ever since. She hoped to create a stationary library on a bus route in the east and south sides of Iowa City, but she ran into logistical issues.

Her vision morphed into a bookmobile, which she believes is far more successful at achieving accessibility than a conventional library could ever be.

She opened it to increase access to library materials by bringing them directly to people’s front doors. The bookmobile — a spacious white van lined with bookshelves — travels all over Iowa City, but mostly focuses on lower-income areas farther from downtown.

The library uses a fee-free approach because many low-income families don’t want to take the risk of checking out a library book and damaging it, she said. Elton added that a child once told her his family couldn’t buy groceries after paying library fees.

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Community members do not need a government ID or proof of residence to check out items from the library, which increases access to those without secure housing.

The bookmobile is busiest in the summer because the break is a critical time for young students, Elton said.

The average student will lose 17-34 percent of the prior year’s learning gains while out of school, according to  the Northwest Evaluation Association. Lower-income students are especially vulnerable to summer learning loss, according to the Brookings Institute.

Besides books, the Antelope Lending Library also has board games available for checkout and hosts activities for children.

In August, the bookmobile partnered with The LENA Project, a local sustainability nonprofit, to teach a craft workshop to turn plastic water bottles into art. The bookmobile partners with the Iowa City Community School District’s free summer lunch program and Costco to provide snacks along their route. Another partner is Open Heartland, a local nonprofit serving Latinx families. The bookmobile visits the nonprofit’s center so that parents can focus on English language classes while their children do activities.

When the pandemic hit, the Antelope Lending Library crafted programming to fit social distancing. It distributed creative engagement kits for families and offered a new delivery service called “Antelope ROAMS” in which librarians hand-select books based on the age-specific needs of a family. In response to continued demand, the bookmobile still offers the service through its website.

Donations and grants of all kinds fund the library, but the most notable is the James Gang fund, an Iowa City-based “nonprofit incubator” that funds organizations looking to encourage creativity in the community.

Linden Daniel Galloway, a volunteer at the Antelope Lending Library, said he appreciates the bookmobile’s malleability in meeting needs in the community.

“I’ll continue volunteering with Antelope in the future because the connections they make with people have a really positive impact, and I like being part of that,” Galloway said.

Sam Helmick, community and access services coordinator at the Iowa City Public Library, said the public library is not affiliated with Antelope Lending Library, but they both share the work of spreading literacy and information out to the community.

“The work of public libraries is to put info in the hands of folks, and that means taking it to where they organically exist in their communities,” Helmick said.

Besides, Elton said, late fees are ultimately ineffective.

“Studies have shown that late fees don’t actually encourage people to bring items back on time,” Elton said. “All they do is punish people who cannot afford to return them on time and enable people who can afford to pay late fees to just pay for more access.”

Lastly, Elton said the Antelope Lending Library’s mission goes beyond education and enrichment; it’s also about making sure adults and children alike connect to the Iowa City community.

“We want every person in the community to have additional positive interactions with people outside of their families,” Elton said. “Especially kids having positive adult role models. The more of those kind of positive relationships that you can build, the better it is for everyone in the community.”