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.

Free ebooks at Harrisburg International Airport

Here’s a great idea: on Wednesday, Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg International Airport (MDT) introduced a free eBook Library for travelers.


Airport marketing manager Stephanie Gehman browsed through the more than 30,000 free titles offered by Project Gutenburg and picked out 15 ebooks for the MDT library. Passengers – or anybody – can download the books, which include classics and aviation-related titles, at

What’s on the shelf?  The Adventures of Huck Finn, Aeroplanes, Andersen’s Fairy Tales, Around the World in 80 Days, Gulliver’s Travels, Little Women, Mother Goose, Oliver Twist, Opportunities in Aviation, Pride and Prejudice, Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, The Early History of the Airplane, The First Airplane Diesel Engine, and Wuthering Heights.

The ebooks are available for multiple formats directly from the website or by scanning any of the 15 different signs posted in gate areas and in a few other locations in the MDT terminal.

“The signs have a QR code that links directly to one of the fifteen titles in the ebook library,” said Gehman.  “Passengers can wander around the terminal, scan all of the signs and collect all fifteen titles.”

And what about the shops that sell books at the airports?

MDT has two Hudson News locations that sell books, “But we selected ebook titles that aren’t for sale at the booksellers in the terminal,” said Gehman.

Love the layover: five libraries worth a visit

Note: My story – Leaf through a library on your next trip – first appeared on Travel.

New library in Stuttgart, Germany

E-readers such as Kindle or Nook may be hot holiday gifts this season, but that doesn’t mean libraries are a thing of the past. In fact, with architecturally significant buildings, exhibitions and a wide range of amenities, the public libraries in many cities rank alongside museums and other cultural attractions as must-see destinations for many travelers.

Here are five libraries worth a visit:

Stuttgart Central Library, Stuttgart, Germany
Officially dedicated at the end of November, the new central library in Stuttgart, Germany, has joined the Mercedes-Benz Museum as a major local attraction. Designed by Korean architect Eun Young Yi, the Stadtbibliothek is a nine-story, cubed, glass block structure that looks staid and grey during the day but glows iridescent blue at night. Inside, an open, all-white floor plan pushes the books to the perimeter, surrounding the children’s library and the multi-zoned reading, research and gathering spaces.

Don’t miss: To emphasize that this new facility is open to all, the word “Library” is written in English on the outer wall of one side of the building and written in German, Korean and Arabic on the other three.

Central Library, Seattle, Washington
When it opened in 2004, the New York Times’ Herbert Muschamp described the downtown Central Library in Seattle, Wash., as “a blazing chandelier to swing your dreams upon.”

Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas, the unusually-shaped steel and glass building with 30 miles of books arranged in an ingenious ‘Books Spiral’ has become one of the city’s most visited attractions. “More than 2 million people visit the Central Library year,” said Seattle Public Library spokesperson Andra Allison. “You can’t go anywhere in the building without seeing tourists with cameras.”

Don’t miss:
Take a guided or self-guided tour, but don’t miss the view from the 10th floor.

British Library, London
With more than 150 million items, London’s British Library is one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive. In addition to public tours and events, the library displays world treasures from a collection that includes the 1215 Magna Carta, Leonardo da Vinci’s notes on architecture and arithmetic, illuminated manuscripts and Shakespeare’s First Folio.

Don’t miss: Current exhibitions explore the role of supernatural phenomena in the work of Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘lost’ novel.

Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark

Founded in 1648, Denmark’s Royal Library holds printed Danish works dating back to 1482. The original 1906 library building on Copenhagen’s harbor was expanded in 1999 with an angular, shiny black granite addition now referred to as the Black Diamond. Today, the library is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions and is home to the National Museum of Photography, a 600-seat concert hall with its own 10-member ensemble, a garden, a roof-top terrace and several exhibition spaces.

Don’t miss: Public tours of the old and new library buildings are offered each Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m.

Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland
Dublin’s Trinity College Library is Ireland’s largest. It’s also one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions, mostly because the library is home to the Book of Kells, a lavishly decorated, four-volume illuminated manuscript created by Celtic monks in the 9th century. Two volumes are displayed to the public at a time: one is open to a significant, decorated page; another shows two pages of script.

Don’t miss: In addition to the Book of Kells and other related manuscripts, visitors may tour the library’s Long Room, which contains oak bookcases filled with 200,000 of the library’s oldest books, a collection of marble busts depicting writers, philosophers and men connected with the college and Ireland’s oldest harp, which dates to the 15th century.

Which special libraries have you visited in your travels? Add your suggestion below.