Inspired by similar programs in London and New York, Books on the Rail allows Australian commuters to “take a book, read it and then return it for someone else to enjoy.” After exploring the concept for a feature story, The Culture Trip Melbourne spoke with founders Ali and Michelle and discovered how this idea came about and just how important “book ninjas” are to this initiative.
Explain how Books on the Rail came about?
Ali: The idea for Books on the Rail started two years ago, when I was working at ad agency Leo Burnett in London. My art director was Hollie Fraser, the founder of “Books on the Underground” in the UK. I instantly recognised Hollie’s concept as ‘so Melbourne’ and decided when I returned to Melbourne, I would start it here.
Michelle: We officially started Books on the Rail in April by leaving our own books on trains and trams or buying them from second-hand bookstores and charity shops. Since then the response from publishers and authors has been overwhelmingly positive, and we now receive a box of books to distribute on trains, trams and buses weekly!
Did you face any challenges when it came time to turning your idea into reality?
Ali: Yes, the main challenge we faced was how to distribute lots and lots of books on different train, tram and bus lines. We were only two people when we started and the geographical reach we wished to achieve seemed impossible. Luckily, we now have a team of close to 500 Book Ninjas (emblazoned with a Books on the Rail sticker) who distribute their own books for us all over Australia!
How did you go about recruiting publishers and authors to be a part of Books on the Rail?
Michelle: We started by reaching out directly to publishers and authors, emailing them information about Books on the Rail. It didn’t take long for both national and international publishers and authors to hop on board! Once they saw how excited the Australian public was to discover new books, they were very keen to get involved with our transitory library.
Are there restrictions on the types of books that people can share?
Ali: We’re pretty open to the sort of books that can be distributed – that’s the beauty of the initiative. We have everything from children’s books to historical fiction to memoirs to short stories to cook books and colouring in books! We want to keep the genres as diverse as possible. Given the randomness of public transport, you never know who’s going to find our books and what they’ll enjoy. We don’t allow any prejudiced or discriminatory books.
What’s the general feedback from commuters been?
Michelle: It has been overwhelmingly positive. So far we have received over 400 (and counting!) emails from people eager to get involved and become Book Ninjas– requesting up to 100 stickers each to place on their own books.
Ali: The call outs have been from people all over Australia, from Adelaide to Toowoomba. So much so that we’ve now expanded Books on the Rail to be a nationwide movement!
Is there any way to track how far a book has travelled?
Michelle: Currently we’re tracking our books via social media. Using our hashtag #booksontherail, people can post about the books they are discovering and sharing! One of our favourite stories was when someone tweeted about a book they found on a train, then, a week later tweeted again that they loved the book and had released it back on the rail – asking, “I wonder who will find it next?” Amazingly, another individual tweeted back with a picture of the very same book in their living room – stating “Me!”
Ali: We’re also in the process of looking at developing technology to geo-track exactly how far our books travel.
Why should commuters pick up the hard copy of a book instead of the Kindle Version?
Michelle: You just can’t compete with the romance of a hard copy book. The sensation of flicking through the pages! The smell of the paper! And, of course, being able to proudly keep your favourite characters and stories close by on your bookshelf!
Has either of you discovered a new favourite book through Books on the Rail?
Ali and Michelle: We have both just read The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke, sent to us by Hachette. It’s one of the most important and powerful books I have read in a while. It’s an influential, funny, and at times shocking memoir about growing up black in white middle-class Australia.
If you could only recommend one book each, which would it be and why?
Ali: We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I don’t want to give anything away – so all I can say is it’s enchanting, witty and clever with lots of twists and turns. And it’s about topics I’m very passionate about!
Michelle: Oh, so many amazing books to choose from! Let’s go with – Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey. Heralded as Australia’s To Kill a Mockingbird, it confronts themes of death, race, friendship, love and growing up in a small town. It’s so dynamic! The characters and dialogue are at times chilling and, at other times, hilarious. It’s a truly brilliant read.
Michelle, as a teacher how important do you think literature is in a student’s development and have you spoken to your students about Books on the Rail?
Michelle: As a primary school teacher, I see how empowering reading can be. I currently teach Year 1, so I am at the heart of early literacy development. Together with providing my students with the necessary skills and strategies to become independent readers, I want to imbue them with a love of reading. Reading opens you to so many worlds and perspectives and can help nurture empathy, creativity and wisdom.
The school community has been so supportive of and excited by Books on the Rails! My students just want to hit the rails and track down books. It has been a really great way of role-modeling my obsession with reading and showing them how exciting and powerful books can be.
What’s your vision for Books on the Rail and do you think there’s potential for other Australian cities to follow suit?
Ali: With the help of our incredible Book Ninjas, we’ve recently launched Books on the Rail Australia-wide! We hope to continue to expand our geographical reach and the number of books hitting public transport services. We want to create a movement where the community drives the initiative, rather than just us. We’re already starting to see this happen on social media, which is very exciting! Hopefully in the future, every time you travel on public transport you’ll spot a Books on the Rail book!
Michelle: Additionally, we’re looking at ways to grow sustainably. Currently, we are self-funded and producing and distributing the stickers is a costly endeavor. We wouldn’t want money to prevent a book reaching an eager reader! We’re now looking for organisations to partner with and help us grow.
Finally, what’s the best thing about living in UNESCO City of Literature aka Melbourne?
Ali: The cute book stores, literary festivals, and fantastic home-grown authors and publishers – it doesn’t get much better than that!
Michelle: We feel so lucky to live in a city where literature is so alive! We have been so overwhelmed by the number of people reaching out to tell us how much they love reading and want to share their favourite stories with the city.