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JetBlue Wasted Tens of Thousands of Dollars When it Installed Book Vending Machines in Detroit

Soar with Reading Launch Event

Remember last summer when JetBlue got a lot of press for installing book vending machines in Washington DC’s poorest neighborhoods?

They’ve just installed more book vending machines in a reading desert, this time in Detroit.

From the press release:

JetBlue’s award-winning Soar with Reading program launched today with the addition of Detroit to its innovative free book vending machine program. In order to help halt students’ “summer slide” – the knowledge base lost during the summer months – JetBlue installed five vending machines in neighborhoods across Detroit. Following its successful pilot vending machine program last summer, JetBlue will also return one machine to the Anacostia area of Washington, D.C. to continue to encourage children’s imaginations to take flight through reading.

The custom-designed book vending machines by Innovative Vending Solutions are stocked with books for children ages 0-14. In partnership with Random House Children’s Books and its Magic Tree House® series by Mary Pope Osborne, JetBlue will donate 120,000 free books to children living in Detroit, Washington, D.C. and other book deserts.

My problem with this program is that it’s not getting the biggest bang for its buck.

11283295804_b4630d5ec6_hYes, the book vending machines are going into book deserts and helping the community, but there are better options. Rather than spend $10,000 or more on each book vending machine, the money would be better spent building and deploying little free libraries.

These are breadbox sized structures which cost between $300 and $1,000 depending on the size and construction. They are sometimes either purpose-built, or built into former newspaper stands, phone books, or even refrigerators, and contain anywhere from a dozen to a couple score of books.

7989430557_b274d78f0c_hFor what JetBlue spent on ten book vending machines, it could have funded one hundred fifty little free libraries. They could have covered a far larger area and helped more people.

Or, they could take inspiration from another US city.

Indianapolis has taken a step in this direction, although they too went the expensive and showy route rather than cost-effectively serving their community. Last year Teleread reported on this program:

The Public Collection was a two-year program intended to support literacy and art appreciation in the Indianapolis Community through making books freely available to the public at eight art installations all around the downtown area. I also learned they were having a grand opening ceremony the next day on Monument Circle, so I made plans to attend.

The grand opening ceremony was held at the site of yet another art installation, called “Monument”—a huge assembly of bright green Greek-style columns with their own rotating bookshelves built in, and a Mark Twain quote overhead. There were a series of speakers, including the project’s coordinators, architects, and even Mayor Ballard. They explained that the project had been inspired by another art project that brought ten Little Free Library art installations to New York City. They wanted to do something similar, to demonstrate that art was for everyone while at the same time doing something about the imbalance in terms of the availability of books to the community.

That project distributed excess books for free, so even though a lot of money was wasted on the installations it is still a step in the right direction.

Detroit could have gone down a similar path. The better option would have been to either deploy cheap little free libraries, or use the hundred thousand plus dollars spent on book vending machines and develop and build a hundred larger free library boxes.  They would have a huge selection, be highly visible, and help far more people than just the ten book vending machines.

There are already dozens of little free libraries in the Detroit area; just image how an additional hundred could help the community.

images by RJL20Franco Folini, JetBlue

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Chris Meadows June 29, 2016 um 2:22 pm

I don’t know, I think there’s room to argue that the Public Collection serving their community a lot better than Little Free Libraries might. There are a number of LFLs in the Indianapolis area, too, and I’ve visited several of them. Almost without exception, there was nothing in any of them I would actually want to read. For all that the Public Collection kiosks are expensive and artsy-fartsy, they have a lot more room for books than any LFL I’ve ever seen, plus they’re actively curated by the local public library, which means they do have stuff people would want to read in them.

Plus, when you consider how much money cities spend on art installations that don’t have any secondary useful purpose (Chicago’s "bean," anyone?) and take that factor out of the equation, I would say the Public Collection is quite cost-effective for what it is.

Certainly it catches the eye a lot more handily than most LFLs, which people are inclined to assume are mailboxes or birdhouses.

Nate Hoffelder June 29, 2016 um 5:06 pm

You’re putting too much weight on the word "little"; as we saw in Brazil the library might be as large as a fridge.

Okay, so rather than the cubby why not build a thousand-dollar phonebooth-sized structure? It would have a huge selection and still cost a tenth as much as a book vending machine.

Frank June 29, 2016 um 3:21 pm

It may not be cost effective to buy a Jetblue machine versus a bunch of little libraries, but it is providing access to libraries so that is never a waste.

Dan July 1, 2016 um 5:22 pm

I just think its a different product. As I understand it, the vending machines are new books, with many copies of the same book. The little free libraries are used books, and generally do not have multiple copies. So if a few kids want to read the same book – the vending machines are a cool way to get kids excited about reading.

nara.r.lee October 22, 2016 um 2:20 am

Presentation is part of the difference, there is also a difference between a new book and a used book, in Jetblue’s vending machine and LFL. Children living in poverty do not always have the luxury to choose products for themselves. Nor do they always get to own something that is current and brand new. But those options are part of the experience of owning a tangible good. It may be more pragmatic to buy something used than new, or wait until something is put on sale, but how many times have you chosen to treat yourself and buy it anyway? Younger siblings in a large middle class family, might fondly recall times when they shopped for something new, that they chose and had never belonged to anyone else. As grown-ups, we have choice and the shopping experience is no longer uncommon. But for children, it can be a positive experience that makes the book more special. The experience of where you shop, what you choose, and when you get your preferred book, all go into making the book more valuable to you. For the goal of getting children to enjoy reading, I think Jetblue’s vending machine is worthwhile.

Opal February 8, 2017 um 3:26 pm

Little Free Libraries–Yucch! Old, moldy, torn books that my children don’t want to read. They remind me of the old leave one–take one racks at libraries. They would be filled with condensed books and Reader’s Digests. Soon to be ignored because they were filled with nothing anyone wanted to read. My library is installing book vending machines in the far parts of our county so that we can have 24/7 access to print books. I say, "Soar Jet Blue".

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