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Libraries turn vending machines into lending machines
March 15, 2010, 10:01 pm
Filed under: Culture | Tags: , ,

lending machine

Just yesterday I was lamenting the fact that almost all of the LA Public Library branches are closed on Sundays (where am I going to get my free weekly plane-reads?), and thought that it was a shame that you could return books in dropslots after hours, but not check them out then. That’s when it struck me–a book vending machine would be a great way to get around it–just stock it with a random assortment of books popular and not-so-popular, and have people swipe their library card and make their selection. I was sure this couldn’t have been the first time anyone had thought of this, and a little Googling proved me right.

Library vending machines (more like lending machines! high five!) have found varying iterations globally, each re-purposing the familiar vending machine format more or less slickly. One of the most advanced and comprehensive ones may be the ones used by the southern Chinese city of Shenzen, which makes accessible its 2+ million books and other media (including CDs, DVDs, etc)–and even dispenses library cards–through a fully automated, RFID-powered, round-the-clock self-service system. Just as a Redbox is to DVD rentals, so is the Integrated Library Automation System (ILAS) to library borrowing–patrons may even reserve materials online and receive a text when their item is available in the nearest machine, each of which can hold 400 items at a time. At a cost of approximately $57,000 per machine, the ILAS is a much more cost-effective alternative to building and staffing smaller satellite branches across Shenzen, getting the city more literacy bang for its library buck.

Even simpler versions exist, but even these are not only whimsical but highly utilitarian–certainly more so than the statement-making luxury vending machines we’ve seen around over the past few years. In our case, the machines are a unique tool in service of  public libraries’ mission of literacy and free access to information for all, both in terms of the reach of an individual machine as well as in the cost-effective means of peppering a city (and especially its underserved communities) with many more easy-to-use portals through which to access library stock.

It’s a simple idea but it’s powerful: whether commercially or in public service, the potential (and indeed chief virtue) of such machines is to reach people where they are, when they want it, in a way that is easy, convenient, and intuitive. Library vending machines make literacy more accessible, and that access more timely and relevant. These machines give libraries the chance to reach people in the most relevant and useful moments–in subways, parks, offices, stores, and schools; when they’re waiting, when they’re bored, when they’re curious–allowing people to seize the impulse to read whenever and wherever they most crave the written page.

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