ottawa.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterboxThe Toronto Public Library is considering whether to install library book vending machines in popular transit hubs and library lobbies, according to the Toronto Star.

These machines can dispense several hundred titles. The library system could ‘broaden’ its reach by providing accessible books to a different customer base. Patrons could check out books even if the library branches were closed.  Shown in the photo is are book-dispensing machines that the Ottawa Public Library has deployed.

As an e-book fan. I have mixed feelings about this. I am all for broadening the reach as a concept, but these machines still embody the two main flaws of the print model. They require people-time to maintain and stock, and the constraints of their physical form limit the selection.

I myself can sign out e-books even when the library is closed, and I can choose from several thousand titles. When I log in and sort by date of release, I can peruse several hundred new additions per week!

Unfortunately, the book-dispensing machines may fall victim to the classic ‘new technology’ implementation path—enough early use, due to the novelty factor, to statistically justify their installation, then declining patronage as over-worked, budget-besieged library staffers fall behind on stocking them and maintaining them.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe commuters really do want to sign out a limited pre-selection of library books on their way to work. What do you think?


  1. This tech has been around for at least five years (I saw it at an ALA conference in 2010) but I don’t know that any library has deployed them. In fact, all of the projects that brought libraries to transit stations went digital. They did not use the available vending machines.

    I don’t think this is going to go anywhere.

  2. Are these books intended for rental or sale?

    There’s a DVD movie rental machine in our local supermarket. I’ve never used it and never seen anyone else use it, and I’m in there four or five times a week. I suspect it’s the same problem; not enough space to cater to a sufficiently wide group of customers. And DVDs are less than half the size of books.

  3. Having posters explaining how to access library e-books in transit hubs is probably going to be better use of dollars (it’s much cheaper). But it doesn’t address the poverty gap: not everyone can afford an e-reader.

  4. @Marcia: Access to e-book-capable devices needs to be an issue in the U.S. and also up in Canada, but these days, even many kids from low-income families can own smartphones. The $50 Kindle also shows the possibilities. That said, yes, the digital divide is still huge even if the issues have changed.

    Perhaps you can tell librarians and others about some LibraryCity/TeleRead commentary exploring these matters: Why Can’t the Media Understand the Digital Divide—Especially the Associated Press?

    Low-income people need training and connectivity and services such as family literacy outreach so they’ll care about the books in the first place. We need to think beyond the gadgets themselves.

    Meanwhile paper books in vending machines won’t hurt. A California library system seems to have done fine with the machines even while playing up e-books.

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