March 16, 2018

Philly Free Library Debuts Virtual Collection at Suburban Station

Jodi Picoult QR code from Philly Free Library

One of the QR codes from the Philadelphia Free Library’s Virtual Library

The Free Library of Philadelphia will launch what it calls the first virtual library at a U.S. train station on April 2. Throughout National Library Month (April), commuters will be able to download books, music, and podcasts by scanning QR codes placed on 76 advertising boards on Philly’s Suburban Station platforms.

The virtual library will offer 15 classics, 13 bestsellers or “current” titles, and 22 author podcasts, Alix Gerz, Director of Communications and Brand Marketing for the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation, told LJ. The podcasts and classics are open access, but the bestsellers through Overdrive require a library card. (The access policy for this campaign is the same as it is for accessing the library’s full digital offerings via the website, which include more than 80,000 ebooks, 8,000 audiobooks and 1,000 author podcasts.)

Free Library staff members “have already begun checking the holds on the featured titles so that they are ready for next week’s launch,” Gerz said, “with plans to obtain additional copies as needed, in keeping with their usual holds ratio (of 5 holds per copy).  [they] have allocated funds specifically to support this promotion and its expected increase in usage.” Books will expire as they typically do through the library’s e-lending services. Podcasts are streaming and can be “listened to as much as the user wants,” said Gerz.

Siobhan A. Reardon, President and Director of the Free Library, and Kim Scott Heinle, SEPTA Assistant General Manager for Customer Service, will kick off the promotion at an event on April 2 at 11 a.m., while the Philly Free Library’s Digital Resource Specialists will help travelers learn to access the content.

Suburban Station Entrance

Pennsylvania Railroad Suburban Station by
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

The program is sponsored by SEPTA (Philadelphia’s transit authority), Titan, and Dunkin’ Donuts: The virtual library will also include a QR code for commuters to download the Dunkin’ Donuts app for mobile payments and local offers.

In addition, the Philly Free Library’s Techmobile will be stationed outside SEPTA’s city headquarters on April 16 to help the public register for library cards, download digital materials, and learn more about the Free Library’s online offerings. Meanwhile, SEPTA and its partners will sponsor the “What are you reading?” contest, in which the public can submit the titles of their current read to SEPTA’s Facebook page or the @SEPTA_Social Twitter feed using #enrichyourride by April 16 to win prizes.

In a case of life imitating art, the move is reminiscent of the recent Underground Library ad, created by students to promote an as-yet-nonexistent New York Public Library service which would allow commuters to download ebook samples from “smart posters.” The Philadelphia library’s real-life use of QR codes rather than Near Field Communications (NFC) gets around the minimal storage capacity of NFC chips, which could make implementing the Underground Library problematic, as well as the fact that not all smartphones are NFC-enabled.

“QR technology is widely understood and available on all mobile devices so we felt it would be the most user-friendly option,” said Gerz. However, it also limits the campaign to places with WiFi (which Suburban Station platforms do have) and requires users to download an app to translate the code. QR codes are not without their critics, particularly in the library world. Although popular in Japan, and the source of much initial enthusiasm, QR codes have been written off by many as a failed experiment, thanks to lack of consumer adoption. A 2011 study found that even among the tech-savvy college student sector, only about 20 percent were able to successfully scan one, and three quarters said they were unlikely to scan a QR code in the future.

So far, the library has no plans to expand the Virtual Library beyond the station or longer than National Library Month, but that doesn’t mean it’s out of the question. Said Gerz, “We’re just excited to see how this first effort of its kind is received and determine from there our next steps.”

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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  1. CopyCat says:

    So the Philly Free Library basically copied the Miami Ad School students idea of the “Underground Library”?
    Sounds like a cheap version of this idea to me…

  2. CopyCat says:

    find the “original” idea here: