In rural Tulare County school libraries are small, and in many towns public libraries are nonexistent. While eBooks and eReaders continue to be one of the hottest trends in education, these same small towns often struggle with a persistent digital divide between the haves and the have nots. But as Ezra David Romero reports, officials with the Tulare County Library system are now using a different sort of technology to help improve literacy and help kids develop a lifelong love of reading.
Across a busy intersection from Cutler Elementary School, in a gated park no bigger than a tract home is the Cutler library. But this library is unlike most in Tulare County. It doesn’t have doors, or desks or even librarians. It’s a vending machine.
“I know which one I want . . . Captain Underpants,” says a child borrowing a library book.
Cutler is a community of 5,000 residents, about 30 miles southeast of Fresno. This machine is the first of four that the Tulare County Library System operates in the region.
“These machines are really neat because they carry 300 books,” says Jeff Scott a Tulare County librarian. “They come up, scan their library cards, press the number letter combination that they want and they get their book. If you can get M&M’s out of a candy machine then you can get a book out of a library.”
The machines are a mix between a vending machine and the popular Redbox units that dispense DVDs outside convenience stores and supermarkets. The library purchased them four years ago with a $100,000 federal stimulus grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It forced us to look differently about how we deliver service,” Scott says. “We want to make sure the library is everywhere so you don’t have to drive 10 minutes to a library if you don’t have transportation, we’ll put it right in your neighborhood.”
Scott says that while iPads, Nooks and other eReaders are popular nationwide, access to those technologies in rural Tulare County is often limited.
“We look at a community like this and we’re not talking about technology or eBooks,” Scott says. “They don’t have books at all. Our goal is to try to provide these books to the communities who don’t have access to them.”
He says the book vending machines have been so successful that “the kids will empty the book machine in one day. We have 300 books in there and the Cutler machine we’ve had it three to four years now and we have to have someone come out twice a week to make sure the machine is replenished and in working order because it gets such heavy use.”
He attributes the success to the specific location of each machine.
“The school is on one side and all the houses where they walk to are on the other side,” Scott says. “We sat here and thought where would be the best place for it and then the school let out and then we saw all these people crossing this field and we thought why don’t we just put it right here.”
The Tulare County Library will unveil their fifth book machine at Alta Vista Elementary School in East Porterville Wednesday, and they hope to install a sixth in the near future.
“We actually got a local private donation from a local grower who wants to put one in his community,” Scott says. “It gets so much traction that and we talk to people and they see this concept and everybody wants a machine in their community, because that’s the best and fastest way for us to provide library services to them.”
And just a like a normal library – with a librarian – kids read the books, return them by sliding them into a drop box and then have the opportunity to check out a few more.