The Bay Area consistently ranks high on the Most Literate Cities list, which has to do with things like library resources and ratio of bookstores to residents. It doesn’t count how many people are reading on public transit, but whenever I ride BART or Caltrain, it seems that at least half the people around me have a book or newspaper open.

Photo: Nina Thorsen, KQED

Which makes the Peninsula Library System’s “robotic book lending machine” a natural. Named Free 2 Read and Ride and located at the Millbrae Station, it’s now serving BART, Caltrain, and SamTrans bus riders. The machine’s been in the station for several weeks with a “Coming Soon” sign on it, but Thursday was the first day it was open for lending.

The device, which sits on the upper level of the station outside the fare gates, holds more than 300 books chosen by Peninsula librarians. Heavy on fiction, mystery, and biography, available books were chosen for wide appeal. The first selection to come up on the “Browse” function was Tony Blair’s autobiography; I spied a P.G. Wodehouse Jeeves novel and a Bay Area guidebook on the list as well.

Wayne Walker of the Peninsula Library System gave me a demonstration. There are two screens: On the left you browse and reserve available books; on the right you check out your selection. Walker said creating a quick process in which patrons have a couple of opportunities to opt out (in case someone has to run for a train) was a design imperative.

“If you spend any time at this station, you’ll notice that when riders come through here they’re on a mission,” he said. “They want to get in, they want to get out”.

Photo: Nina Thorsen, KQED

You can return Free 2 Read books at the machine or at any Peninsula library. But you can’t return books you checked out at a brick-and-mortar library at the machine. Nor can you pay your library fines there. To take out books, you’ll need a library card from one of the Peninsula libraries. You’ll also have to remember your PIN – which stymied this reporter’s attempts at a self-demonstration. (Well, that and the not-being-able-to-pay-outstanding-fines thing.)

More than a million riders go through the end-of-the-line Millbrae station every year, and Wayne Walker thinks the robot library will be especially popular with people heading to San Francisco International Airport, the next stop north. I asked him whether a book-dispensing machine might not be a few years late, given how many people now carry Kindles, iPads and smartphones.

“Yes, the world is heading towards digital,” he said. “But there are still plenty of people that enjoy the real thing to read.”

Plus the batteries on library books never wear down.

BART’s New “Robotic Book Lending Machine” 6 May,2011Nina Thorsen

  • dr ootzler

    hmm, if Bart thinks this is such a good idea, I wonder if they can convince Oakland not to shut down 14 libraries?


Nina Thorsen

Nina Thorsen is a KQED radio producer and director, and frequently reports on sports, food and culture.  

She co-created and produced KQED’s Pacific Time,  a weekly radio program on Asian and Asian American issues that aired from 2000 to 2007. Before coming to KQED, Thorsen was the deputy foreign editor for Marketplace.  In her home state of Minnesota, she worked for A Prairie Home Companion and for Public Radio International.  

Nina was honored by the Radio-TV News Directors Association of Northern California in 2012 for a series of stories on the Oakland A’s stadium.  She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in speech-communication. 

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