Initiative Provides Free eBooks for Subway Commuters

View all blog posts under Articles

Libraries are tasked with the challenge of attracting potential users and helping them take advantage of the vast array of available resources. While this may seem simple, it is no easy feat. While a 2016 Pew Research study revealed that nearly half of all American adults ages 16 and older have visited a library in the last 12 months, libraries still wish to grow this statistic. In an attempt to increase usage and attract even more users, libraries are launching a variety of initiatives to increase awareness of their products and services.

In New York City, this took on a creative face with a project known as the Subway Library. Local libraries took their e-books to the city’s subway system, where they exposed readers to their offerings in an innovative way.

Subway Library’s Smart Collaboration

Image via Flickr by sakeeb

Subway Library was a collaborative project that included the New York Public Library, Queens Library, and Brooklyn Public Library along with Transit Wireless and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). These five organizations worked together to offer subway riders a new and unique experience. For six weeks, anyone using the New York subway system could connect to the Transit Wireless Wi-Fi network and visit Once on the website, users gained access to a carefully curated selection of reading materials.

The MTA redesigned a subway car to publicize the effort. On the exterior, the car featured “Subway Library” lettering, and on the interior, the car looked like the Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library. The car appeared on lines E and F in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, where it helped spread the word about the service. However, readers didn’t have to hop on this train to enjoy the experience, as Subway Library was available at all subway stations in New York.

Offering Simple Mobile Library Access

The Subway Library promotion brought library access to the everyday residents’ commutes. The technology used for the Subway Library website was similar to that used for the library’s SimplyE e-reader. Thus, the promotion effectively introduced this technology to new users, giving them a taste of what they could enjoy if they were to become regular library patrons.

The program also aimed to entice subway riders into becoming regular readers by giving the sense of being unplugged. As Lynn Lobash, manager of reader services for the New York Public Library, told The New York Times, “It used to be that you were ‘unplugged’ on the subway, and even though you’re connecting to the wireless now, you’ll still have the sense of being unplugged when reading books. It’s a lot different than the frantic sense of checking your email or being on Twitter.”

Providing Bite-Size Literary Tasters

The Subway Library did not offer complete access to the library system’s offerings. Rather, it provided a small selection that was designed to give readers a sample of what library membership has to offer. The Subway Library offered complete versions of select classic novels, short stories, and children’s books.

For most novels, the program offered only an excerpt or a few chapters of the complete work. These were carefully selected to offer just enough reading material for a subway commute. The program effectively focused on quick reading. Readers who wanted to finish the whole book could do so by visiting their nearest library.

Reaching Potential Patrons Where They Are

The Subway Library campaign was ideally positioned to expand knowledge of local library offerings and to reach New York City residents where they already were — on the subway. Other library systems have followed suit, reaching beyond their doors to connect with potential users.

The Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado did this by sending staff members to movie theaters, malls, churches, and coffee shops. Library staffers handed out a 10-question survey that helped them better understand the needs of their community. They also took library cards out into the community with them and achieved an 80 percent sign-up rate among those with whom they spoke.

In another effective effort, a library in Forest Park, Illinois, conducted phone interviews, reaching out to community members in their homes to explore why they weren’t visiting their local library. In this case, many of the residents they reached were unaware of the vast range of services available at the library. Many began immediately using their library once they were informed of the offerings.

Offering Tech-Based Solutions for a Changing Landscape

Kimberly Matthews, Assistant Director at the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida, champions the idea of libraries reimagining themselves rather than attempting to pull potential users into the traditional landscape. She encourages libraries to rethink the best ways to carry out their missions, which often include incorporating new tech-based offerings that connect more effectively with younger users.

Suggestions for adopting new technology include developing more robust mobile apps, connecting with patrons through social media accounts, and providing digital content. Just as the Subway Library introduced readers to the pleasures of e-books in-route to their destinations, other similar campaigns could encourage library users to connect via a different platform or medium.

Collaborating Locally for Expanded Reach

Libraries that effectively collaborate with other organizations in their area can effectively reach an audience that may not have found their services otherwise. In New York, this involved a collaboration with the MTA. Public Libraries in Ireland took a different approach, launching an initiative with St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group and UCD School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Systems researchers.

Together, these organizations worked to promote both literacy and health education. They assisted participants in finding essential health information online, effectively educating the community on both their healthcare opportunities and the wealth of resources available through the library.

Library professionals can equip themselves to reach users in innovative ways by participating in the new elective, Partnership and Collaborations in Libraries, which launched in spring 2018 as part of the USC Master of Management in Library and Information Science online degree program. This course will explore how new librarians with library science degrees can identify valuable partnerships and execute joint projects for the maximum benefit of all involved, including the community members.

Are you Reaching Library Customers Where They Are? – Demco Ideas + Inspiration

Reaching the Elusive Library Non-Users – Information Today, Inc.

How Library Events Be Used to Reach Out to the Community –

New York Today: A City Library on the Subway – The New York Times

The NYPL Brings a ‘Subway Library Underground’ –

Libraries 2016 – Pew Research Center: Internet & Technology