Nothing to read? Check out an airport library

Below is a copy of my August 2013 At the Airport column for USA Today – all about airport libraries and airports where you can download e-books for free.

It’s heartwarming that the story has been getting passed around a great deal on Twitter and on Facebook and, so far, has garnered at least one “celebrity” tweet – from Chelsea Clinton!

Chelsea Clinton tweets airports
Nashville Airport Library_Small
Nashville Public Library, Special Collections

The book celebrating the 75th anniversary of Nashville International Airport includes a page — and a charming photo — documenting the library branch that opened on-site in 1962.

Staffed by a librarian who received an extra $4 in her paycheck to cover airport parking, the Nashville Public Library reading room was the first time a public library was ever established in a municipal airport.

In addition to books, the library offered reproductions of well-known artwork for check-out. “I guess (it was) for that big dinner for the boss,” said Elizabeth Odle, photo archivist for the special collections division.

There’s no word on the longevity of the “Booketerias” the Nashville library opened in the aisles of local supermarkets in the mid-1950s, but they were likely gone by 1969, when the airport library branch was shuttered.

Courtesy Nashville Public Library, Special Collections

Today, just a few airport terminals have anything resembling a traditional library. But airports are finding other ways to offer travelers plenty of reading material for free.

E-books and ‘real’ books

As celebrated in a recent issue of Library Journal, many U.S. airports are partnering with local libraries to expand reading opportunities for passengers who often have plenty of time on their hands while waiting for a flight. Many of these partnerships take advantage of complimentary airport Wi-Fi and the fact that so many people now travel with an e-reader, tablet, smartphone or other mobile device.


In 2011, Florida’s Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) and the Broward County Libraries Division joined forces to create the first airport program offering free e-book downloads to passengers. Screens found in all airport baggage claim areas now display QR codes that can be easily scanned to give travelers access to an e-library of more than 15,000 free titles.

No library card is needed and so far almost 1,000 people have used the FLL QR code to check out free books. “Readers can choose from nonfiction, fiction, children’s titles, classics and more — free,” said Catherine McElrath, a publication specialist with the library, and “the book titles never expire.”

Library-sponsored airport e-book download programs are also underway in Kansas, where the Kansas State Library has brought its Books on the Fly campaign to Manhattan Regional Airport and in Pennsylvania, where the Free Library of Philadelphia has set up a special free Wi-Fi spot in the Terminal D/E connector to lead passengers to a splash page that provides access to free e-books, author events, podcasts, historic city photos and other resources.

In March 2012, Michigan’s Traverse Area District Library brought its Books on the Go program to the Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City. Signage with QR codes and instructions are posted in the airport’s baggage claim and terminal areas with links to a collection of literary classics that can be downloaded for free. No library card is needed and airport director Kevin Klein reports that library e-book usage has increased 211% per month since the partnership started.

Of course, with thousands of titles available for free download, it can be difficult to settle on what to read. To help out, Harrisburg International Airport in Pennsylvania searched the more than 42,000 free e-book titles on Project Gutenberg and hand-picked 15 for the airport’s e-book library. Suggested downloads include From Sea to Sea by Rudyard Kipling, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel DeFoe, The Aeroplane Speaks by H. Barber, and Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. (Notice a theme?)

And this summer passengers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) may download free e-books or take home free paper books and magazines from Quick Reads Shelves set-up beside rocking chairs, thanks to the King County Library System‘s (KCLS) award-winning Take Time to READ program.

County librarians take turns going to the airport to help travelers choose reading materials or sign up for a library card. The librarians also re-stock the shelves with books that are all new and all donated from sources that include the library’s foundation, a local newspaper book reviewer and area booksellers.

This is the second summer the free book program has been offered at SEA and this year books are leaving the airport with travelers at the rate of 15,000 a month, according to Julie Brand, the KCLS community relations and marketing director. “Not many people have left their books behind, but we have had some people who have gone out of their way to send back the books they take off the shelves,” said Brand, “Although that is not necessary.”

Courtesy – John Sheller – King County Library System

After spending a long time on a security line at SEA last Friday, Kari Kenall of Olympia, Wash., was delighted to find a rocking chair and books that she could read to her two children, ages 5 1/2 and 16 months. As they headed to the gate for their flight to Minneapolis, Kenall put the books back on the shelf. “I didn’t know they were free,” she said, “But we have some books in our luggage so we’ll leave these here for the next people to use.”

Airport libraries and book swaps

Since December 2000, passengers have been invited to pull up a chair in the San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library, which is inside the aviation museum in the international terminal at San Francisco International Airport. The collection includes 8,000 aviation-related books as well as periodicals, photographs, technical drawings, oral histories, and archival materials. Most books are kept in locked glass-fronted cabinets, but research requests are honored and browsing tables with some books and periodicals are laid out in the public reading room.

SFO Museum_Aviation Library_Credit  Takata Photography
Aviation Library at SFO Airport – Takata Photography
Schiphol Airport Library
Courtesy Schiphol Airport

Checkouts are also not permitted at the 24-hour, self-service reference library that opened in 2010 at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, but a librarian is on duty about an hour a day to re-shelve books and help passengers choose something to read during a layover.

The library’s collection of books, video and audio files celebrate and reflect Dutch culture and “Yes, sometimes people steal a book,” said airport librarian Jeanine Deckers, “But we have approximately 300,000 visitors each year and only about 5 to 10 missing books each year, so that’s not too much.”

Some books removed from the Schiphol Library show up a few weeks or months later and passengers sometimes leave extra books behind. But because the library focuses entirely on Dutch art and culture, “I can’t accept the Dan Browns and Stephen Kings; we put those in a special book-swap corner,” said Deckers.

A dedicated 24/7 book swap area was established at Finland’s Helsinki Airport in 2012 for passengers to pick up a book, drop one off or just spend time sitting and reading.

“Book Swap gives a peaceful moment and there is the idea of recycling and spreading joy, since quite often people either throw away or leave the book in the seat pocket,” said Johanna Metsälä, customer experience manager for the Finavia Corporation, which manages the Helsinki Airport.

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One thought on “Nothing to read? Check out an airport library

  1. phyllis says:

    Oh how I love the King County library, they always go the extra mile

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