Donna Braden has learned to expect the visit every three weeks.

Once she hears it make the sharp curve headed north on Kentucky 764 before the old bridge over Deserter Creek, Braden knows the bookmobile is nearly there. She'll rummage together her returns, hop on board and browse the new selections. She's partial to mysteries, but she likes Christian writers, too, she says.

After a short visit, perhaps one of her hairdressing clients wants to look, too, the truck eases back onto the highway and heads south. It's on to the next stop now -- to the far reaches of the Ohio County line; to little communities or old backwater towns; to homes perched on hills with funny names and spent coal valleys with family histories dating back centuries.

"It's so convenient," says Braden, 73, who lives far from the Ohio County Public Library in Hartford, near the Daviess County line south of Whitesville. "They just come right here to where I am every three weeks. It's like clockwork."

Braden and others on the library's bookmobile route in Ohio County are supporting a rich American heritage in decline. Just 25 years ago, there were nearly 1,000 bookmobiles on routes like this all over the country. Now, there are barely half that number, but Kentucky has more than 11% -- the lion's share of the entire U.S. fleet.

Hancock, McLean and Ohio counties' public libraries have bookmobiles in this region, but nearly every public library has at least one type of outreach vehicle that can bring portions of the library collection to those vulnerable populations who are often most in need of the service but cannot otherwise make it to the main library location or a branch. Of the 146 outreach vehicles in Kentucky, 73 are bookmobiles and another 73 are vans, small buses or cars that make treks through the wild Kentucky countryside to meet clients' demands every single day.

"In Kentucky, we have a large number of very small communities that simply could not support a library branch location," said State Librarian Terry Manuel, who serves as commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives. "All these communities still need library services, so bookmobiles are an excellent, cost-effective way of delivering them."

Nearly 1.8 million items were circulated on bookmobiles in Kentucky last year, according to the KDLA's statistical report on public libraries. That represents more than 6% of the state's total circulation numbers, and it's a symptom, Manuel said, of the geographic nature of the commonwealth and its population spread.

Perhaps nowhere are those challenges more relevant than in Ohio County, which ranks fifth in Kentucky by geographic size and 49th by population.

"It's difficult for many people to come in because we have one, central location," said Ohio County Public Library Director Melissa Acquaviva. "We don't have any branches, so we're adamant that we keep that bookmobile on the road and that it travel to every small community geographically in our county at least twice a month -- and there are a lot. We want to have a presence in them and, honestly, we want them to think that they cannot live without this library."

It's an investment worth making, Acquaviva said, because the library is a public taxing district; it has an obligation to deliver its services to every citizen of the county -- no matter their physical or financial need.

Outreach patrons include those who are isolated by distance, poverty, lack of education or transportation; those with disabilities or the very young and elderly; as well as institutions such as schools, nursing homes, correctional facilities and more, according to the KDLA.

Last year, the library in Ohio County purchased a new bookmobile, a custom-built 2017 Ford E-450 Cutaway with a handicap-accessible chair lift, an outdoor awning, better wi-fi access and more space. It was a big purchase, $168,000 to be precise, but opened up the services the library is trying to provide to an even wider audience.

"We're not just a keeper of books," said Acquaviva. "We've redefined what we house here, even electronically. And, since access is golden, we want library patrons -- especially those on the bookmobile, to be able to access our materials, our card catalog, e-books and more. You can be a library patron and never check anything out."

Wi-fi access is an incredible resource, says Assistant Library Director Melanie Warga. She drove the bookmobile herself from 2000 to 2012, and it wasn't always a resource on which library patrons could rely. Now, she said, the bookmobile makes stops in little Ohio County towns and sets up shop sometimes only for people to pull up and pull out their phones, tablets, computers and more.

Overall, she said, it was the relationships she built as bookmobile librarian that impacted her life the most.

"There was one family -- a husband and a wife," she said. "He was a painter. He passed away several years ago, but he was a phenomenal painter. One of the perks, I guess you could say, of my job, was that I would get to go and look through his studio while he was looking at books. He actually painted a few paintings for me over the years, and they're still hanging up in my home."

She learned her patrons' tastes and their particular nuances -- how one person wouldn't let you park the bookmobile here or that another would always want you to come in and share a cup of coffee. The day before, she said, she would prepare the back with books and DVDs that suited the patrons she would be visiting the next day.

"So, you're thinking to yourself what books you need to pull for which patrons," Warga said. "I would remember that this person only reads mysteries, but she doesn't like anything too steamy. This person only likes westerns, but they don't want anything that's got cussing in it. Whether you're trying to or not, you learn these people and you learn what your tastes are, and that helps you when you're pulling parts of the collection for the bookmobile and it helps for ordering, too, because you can put in those specific requests for them."

The Ohio County Public Library's Homebound Librarian Edie Coleman knows her clients' tastes, too. She drives a small van to and from nursing homes, assisted living facilities and to homes where the young or old can't otherwise browse for books on the bookmobile itself.

Her job is like a stopgap, officials said. The library insists that it meet every citizens' need, so outreach librarians are split up to make sure no stone goes unturned.

"These people have made such an impact on me," she said. "I've met so many great people. I've learned so many things from them and their lives because I really get to know them. With some of them, I've spent two hours at some ladies' homes, because they want to talk, and they're lonely, you know. They just refresh me and refresh my job."

Down a narrow road on the far eastern side of Hartford, bookmobile librarian Tara Bradley navigates the oversized truck past a few low-hanging trees and around a sharp curve into one of the town's few apartment complexes. Quick to hop on the bookmobile's new handicap lift is Donna Lamasters, a 78-year-old woman proud of her ability to get around on a walker but not quite able to make it down to the library much anymore -- especially in the early summer's heat.

She takes her time under the bookmobile's cool air conditioning, smiling at certain novels, picking up her favorite movies. It's a treat, she says, to spend time with her library friends and pick out her monthly entertainment.

"The bookmobile has been very valuable to me," she says. "I live by myself, but I've got some friends who work there -- family. What amazes me is the size of this one over the older one that they had. I will continue to use it, because I like it. I like to read. If there isn't anything good on TV. I'll get me a book."

Austin Ramsey, 270-691-7302, aramsey@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @austinrramsey

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