At first glance, a partnership between libraries and airports may seem a case of strange bedfellows. Libraries offer space for concentration and relaxation, while airports are notoriously stressful and full of distractions. But the venues do have one thing in common: in both, users are looking for something to read.
Despite the recent recession, Hudson Group, which operates Hudson Newsstands in airports and other transit hubs around the country, has expanded its presence in America’s airports in recent years, opening more newsstand locations and taking over former Borders bookstores. But their limited selection, pricing, and lack of ebook offerings mean they’re not meeting the reading needs of all travelers. To fill that gap, libraries are seeking permission to land in airports around the world.
When Kansas State Librarian Joanne Budler—LJ’s 2013 Librarian of the Year— looked around at passengers waiting at a baggage claim a few years ago, what she saw were readers. Or potential readers, at least. The waiting passengers were nearly all focused on their phones. Budler was working out how she could shift that focus from a phone to a book when she realized it might not be a shift, but a combination. “I had read somewhere about QR codes, and I was just trying to put the pieces together,” Budler said.
The result of Budler’s vision—and her staff’s hard work—is the Books on the Fly campaign, which got off the ground last month at Manhattan Regional Airport, the state’s second largest. Scanning a QR code, available on cards throughout the airport, sends users to a site where they can access the Kansas State Library’s eLending service. Visitors without a library card are directed to Project Gutenberg’s mobile-optimized site, where they can download titles in the public domain.
Candace LeDuc, communications coordinator of the state library, told LJ the campaign was “actually pretty easy to get off the ground. The hardest part was finding the correct point of contact at each airport.” Once that was done, she said, “the airports were more than accommodating.” She advises other libraries thinking of starting such a campaign to present it to the airports as a way to enhance their passengers’ experience without legwork, and to be flexible in how the library initiative is presented.
Books on the Fly was not only easy to implement, according to LeDuc, it was cheap. “The only cost to the library is the printed materials. Once your material is in the airport, there’s no overhead.” As to whether it’s working, it is too soon to say, but LeDuc says the library has analytics set up for each location to track website traffic.
With its emphasis on QR codes as a point of entry, the program is designed to appeal to irregular readers with time on their hands. “Our Books on the Fly campaign is targeted more towards mobile devices,” said LeDuc. Patrons with dedicated ereaders that don’t scan QR codes, such as the Kindle and Nook, must type the URL in manually.
That emphasis on ebook lending is also on display at another newly minted airport library. The Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) has launched an all-virtual branch at the Philadelphia International Airport. Said FLP Public Services Technology Coordinator Jenn Donsky, “The airport is a huge opportunity, with thousands of employees there, along with local travelers who can benefit from library resources.”
FLP’s virtual branch provides free Wi-Fi on its own network, set up with the help of AT&T, which already provides free Internet access for travelers at the airport. The FLP network just launched at two locations in the airport, each of which connects two terminals. Once they connect over the library’s network, fliers are taken automatically to a landing page where they can take advantage of all of FLP’s online services.
Ann Blasberg. FLP public services technology supervisor, told LJ, “Our costs have so far been kept relatively low by using space provided by the airport for both a library lounge and the Welcome America Exhibit featuring Philadelphia authors. And allowing us to establish our own wi-fi network in one terminal helped us to then partner with AT&T in their expansion project to be part of an airport-wide wi-fi network. Now we are working on configuring the space for a library lounge and costing that out.”
Because the fit-out is still being implemented and FLP wi-fi is not yet a choice throughout the airport, the library hasn’t yet been able to track usage. But Blasberg said once that’s complete, “we will compile wireless use data as we do with all of our neighborhood libraries and community Hot Spots. Traction will be vastly more measurable once we launch an awareness campaign that draws the eye of locals and visitors alike.”
As in Kansas, passengers need an FLP library card to download the latest bestsellers, but travelers without an FLP membership can still pick the brains of FLP librarians, listen to author interviews, and find directions on how to download public domain works through Project Gutenberg and other services.
Other libraries are offering access to free public domain works only, such as Broward County Library, FL, and the Traverse Area District Library, MI, who have both partnered with OverDrive to deliver the content.
The emphasis on ebooks makes airport initiatives easier. For travelers, ebooks are weightless and take up no room in a carry-on. For libraries, they minimize the space needed to create a library presence and eliminate the need to place shelving, deliver materials to the airport, or worry about loss or late fees for travelers who will be away for longer than the loan period. They can also help bring library patrons into the ebook fold at their home branches, said Joanne Budler. “A lot of people don’t realize yet that we have ebooks available, and this helps make people aware of the services they might not know about yet.”
While electronic access is the heart of the virtual branch, FLP is also hoping to set up a physical space at the Philadelphia airport, though what the site will look like remains up in the air for now. “We are looking at various possibilities, from using the performance space at the airport for story times to offering an egadget helpdesk,” said Donsky. “Between the dual stresses of departure and arrival, people need places on the ground that offer a reprieve,” said Donsky. “We want the library stationed as one of these sites.”
On the other end of the country, Washington State’s King County Library System (KCLS) opted for a distinctly old school approach. For the second summer running, KCLS has brought shelves of books, racks of magazines, and even a few relaxing rocking chairs to SeaTac Airport near Seattle.
These Quick Read stations can be found on two SeaTac concourses. Staffers drop off donated new books and magazines from Jodi Picoult’s Keeping Faith to the latest issue of Vogue, all of which travelers can read on site or take and keep for free. Last year, according to KCLS Marketing Director Julie Brand, the library gave away over 15,000 books and magazines between June and September. They even got a few back from well-intentioned travelers, said Brand. “People sent them back to us with a letter saying that was the only way they could think to return it.”
The Airport Library at Schiphol, near Amsterdam, claims to be the first airport library ever. Opened in the summer of 2010 by ProBiblio, a nonprofit agency that supports Dutch public libraries, the library houses some 1,250 physical books, as well as a handful of iPads with digital content. It finesses the issues of delivery and cardholdership simply: the collection doesn’t circulate. It can only be read on site. It seems to work; according to a New York Times article, even though the library’s only security is the honor system, the library only lost a handful of books.