COLUMBUS — They affectionately call her the “bookmobile lady.”
It’s a nickname Karen Hake has earned over her 45-year career operating the county’s mobile library, a treasure trove of books and movies many rural residents have come to rely on for both education and entertainment.
“That’s what I get called everywhere,” said Hake, who is the only person to serve as librarian for the Platte County Bookmobile.
Her relentless run on area blacktops and backroads began in 1967, when Columbus Public Library advertised for positions to run its new library-on-wheels.
With previous experience working at the local junior and senior high school libraries, Hake jumped at the opportunity. She had always wanted to be either a librarian or teacher.
As fate would have it, a woman slated to split the bookmobile schedule backed out last-minute, leaving Hake and a driver to serve Platte County readers in a large, green bus purchased by the federal government as part of a two-year demonstration project.
Although that vehicle is no longer around — it was sold in 1991 and a 32-foot Thomas Built bus was purchased — Hake and the now county-supported program became a mainstay.
Hake and her driver made 60 stops every two weeks in the early days, delivering library materials to the children at Platte County schools and residents living in nearby towns.
Today, things are a bit different.
The driver position was eliminated seven years when the bookmobile was again downsized to a 24-foot truck and just 14 stops are now on the two-week route, a result of school consolidations.
Undeterred by the changes, Hake, who has always had a CDL license, now takes to the road alone, starting her day around 6 each morning and wrapping up between 5 and 7 p.m.
She stocks and catalogs all the books and DVDs that line the bookmobile’s wooden shelves, some 5,000 items selected by patron request or Hake’s knowledge of her clientele. More than 25,000 items were checked out from the bookmobile last year.
“After all these years you get to know the people,” said Hake, who has a faithful group of adult regulars and an ever-changing population of school students.
It’s her ability to quickly grasp a reader’s interests that most impresses Platte Center Elementary School Principal Daryl Schrunk.
In Platte Center, the bookmobile is used to supplement the school’s small library and allows students to continue reading throughout the summer.
Because of Hake’s expertise, the program doesn’t require much staff effort, Schrunk said.
Parents and other residents are also frequent visitors during bookmobile stops since the community doesn’t have its own library, he added.
At St. John’s Lutheran School, Principal Annette Sonntag says the children are always excited when the white truck with the open-book-on-wheels logo pulls up.
“They can’t wait to get out there,” she said.
Sonntag said Hake always works with the students to find books of interests and goes out of her way to locate special requests, such as resource materials for research projects the school’s library is lacking. The bookmobile has also been a major benefit for the Accelerated Reader program and is utilized by area adults and the on-site day care, she said.
“She just has a really good relationship with everyone,” said Sonntag, who has come to expect Hake’s scheduled arrival, regardless of the weather conditions outside.
Reliable is a term often used when describing Hake, although the same can’t always be said about the bookmobile itself.
Hake has battled mud, snow and wind — which she says is the worst in the box-shaped truck — and faced numerous breakdowns over the years.
But, she said, the good people of Platte County are always willing to lend a helping hand.
“I have had so many people tell me, ‘If you run into trouble just drive to our house, you’re welcome to stay,’” Hake said.
After the bookmobile went down with a generator issue late last year Hake even used her personal pickup to make deliveries to rural patrons.
“Karen is so dependable; she has to have one of the best attendance records of all of us,” said Columbus Public Library Director Jill Owens, who noted that the bookmobile has never been the cause of an accident.
Hake isn’t sure exactly how many miles she’s covered over the past four and a-half decades in her diesel-powered office — “One time we figured I’ve been to the moon and back a couple times,” she said — but she knows it’s not quite time to give up the keys or the nickname.
“I like my job,” said Hake, “and after all these years a lot of people wouldn’t say that.”