How to get physical copies of books to students

Getting books in the hands of students is crucial to supporting their sense of well-being and reducing anxiety during the Stay-at-Home order. And while we here are massive fans of ebooks, we also don’t want to overlook the importance of the good old-fashioned paperback.

To recap: paperbacks are good.

Ebooks are good.

Audiobooks, graphic novels, Choose-Your-Own Adventures, romance novels, online articles — all these things are good. They all count as reading.

Now, we’ve exhaustively covered the ways to get hold of digital reading materials, so right now we’re going to talk hard copies. Hard copies of books don’t require bandwidth. They don’t fall off the wifi and they’re remarkably nonchalant about whether you have a device available or no. At the same time, they can provide students with ways to stay in touch with friend networks or connect with their larger community about reading.

Let’s read!

Did we mention the libraries? We should mention libraries. Just a little.

Libraries are kind of amazing, y’all. For the princely sum of zero dollars, libraries will let you waltz into their living rooms and make off with their primo reading material. Or, at least, they used to. In order to comply with Governor Scott’s stay-at-home order, libraries have gotten creative.

Let’s get takeout!

Yes, libraries are now doing takeout. A number of them here in Vermont — and at a minimum we’re shouting out Carpenter-Carse, Brandon, Lincoln, Starksboro, Quechee, Swanton, and Shelburne — are taking phone and email orders for books.

Let’s pause here for a second and admire the fact that you can pick up a landline, phone your librarian and place an order for books. And these libraries package up the books for you in a neat, individual parcel and let you do curbside pick-up.

Quechee leaves your books outside the back door. Brandon has you drive up during normally “open” hours and a librarian will place your paper bag full of books outside the door. Carpenter-Carse does hands-free transactions in their parking lot. So many solutions.

Also: Brandon’s takeout line sizzled so hot they ran out of paper bags and had to crowd-source more from the community to meet demand. True story. Ten points: Brandon (town and library both).

(The Brandon Free Public Library has also begun hosting an online trivia night, online community meditation, and Zoom-based Dungeons & Dragons games, but that’s another story. Analog. Focus.)

Actually, I’m more in the mood for delivery.

Curbside pick-up is amazing, but a lot of your students may not have their licenses, or not have access to a vehicle, or might, realistically, be in households that are isolating or in quarantine. That’s fine, because pandemics rarely stop librarians. Have you met them?

At least one school librarian has sent books home with their school’s food deliveries and at the printed packet pick up. #unstoppable

But recognizing the ongoing need in their communities, many of the public libraries around Vermont are finding a way to deliver books directly to homes. Shout out to Carpenter-Carse, Swanton and Starksboro AT A MINIMUM.

Meg Allison, librarian at U-32 Middle & High School, in Montpelier VT, (and previous #vted Reads guest) created a unique solution by partnering with Montpelier’s local bookstore, Bear Pond Books:

I used encumbered money from my budget at Bear Pond Books to purchase a substantial gift card. I order books for kids & BP mails to their houses. I’ve only done this for a few students, but plan on having a book group  one more time this year w/books sent from the store.

Kids will need to return them in the fall to be catalogued.

That is a whole lot of good work in one place, y’all.

Cross the streams: online & off.

Taking a different tack, the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington VT, is offering patrons a chance to asynchronously earn digital badges to track their reading. That’s right, it’s like reading logs, only sexier. If you’re working with limited wifi or bandwidth, this is a great way to minimize your usage for maximum payoff.

Hop on: read the badge requirement, sign up. Hop off: go read a book for hours and hours. Then hop back on and grab your badge.

Fletcher badges

Tiny free libraries: they’re free & tiny

One community solution to running out of reading material: the tiny free library. Small, decorative, unmanned weather-proof boxes exist in communities around the world for you to leave a book, and take another book.

And right now tiny free libraries are hopping.

How popular are they? This rural writer can think of three within biking distance of her home. And since the stay-at-home order the turnover at tiny free libraries has been brisk.

They’ve also been responsive: at one tiny free library, a patron wrote in the log that she was disappointed there weren’t more books available for the 3rd and 4th grade reading levels. Within the week, books aimed at younger readers began appearing. Speak up, and ask for what you need.

Not seeing your tiny free library get much action? Hop on Front Porch Forum and ask your neighbors how they’re feeling about the selection and if they’d like to refresh their stock.

Not seeing a tiny free library in your neighborhood? Here are some detailed instructions about what you need to build a tiny free library in your neighborhood, including dealing with zoning laws and construction. We also recommend you hop on Front Porch Forum and ask if any of your neighbors are having the same idea about building one. That way you could pool resources (“I’m great at design and angles, but a bit dodgy with a saw. How are your wood-cutting skills?”) and meet other people who are looking to swap books.

Now, before we get too far down this road, a note about safety.

Please use the utmost caution in sharing physical items such as books and comics, whether from your local community library, the little free library down the road or your friends next door. Wash your hands. Set the books outside for 48 hours and wash your hands again. Wipe down the plastic covers of hardbacks or jacketed library books with a bleach wipe, and then wash your hands again, just for us. One more time.

Wash wash wash. Soap soap soap.

Thank you. And don’t think libraries themselves aren’t thinking along similar lines. At the Starksboro Public Library, in Starksboro VT, they instituted book deliveries only after the librarian and trustees drafted this whole entire protocol for book-handling:

As the virus is believed to live on paper for up to 24 hours and on plastic for up to 72 hours, items will be bagged on Monday by the library director, wearing a mask, and delivered on Thursday by a volunteer. The materials will be in a plastic bag marked with the patron’s address. Reading selections will still be confidential as they have always been. Deliveries will be made on Thursdays between noon and 3pm by a volunteer wearing a mask and gloves. Patrons may wish to further quarantine items at home before touching materials. Packages will be placed on the front porch of your home or another specified outdoor location and social distancing will be maintained. A text will be sent upon delivery. Patrons are encouraged to borrow more material, less often, to lessen exposure to other people.

Wash your hands after reading this post, too. Just to be on the safe side.


That’s: Build Your Own Book Circle.

One of the best ways to express your love of books is to share it with other people. The book club thing gets tricky once you take it offline, and accounting for safety protocols.(Go wash your hands again. It’s not getting old, treat yourself to some delightful smelling soap.)

So we suggest: Book Circle!

You and a few friends sharing and reviewing your books together in sequence. Decide what you’d like to read and set norms for talking about each other’s books. Set clear boundaries with each other by asking things like:

  • What level of peril are you okay with in your reading? (G, PG, PG-13, R?)
  • Are there any genres you aren’t familiar with that you’d like to become more familiar with?
  • Is it okay with you if we read spiritual or religious books, or is that something you reserve for your family?
  • Are there any subjects you absolutely positively don’t want to read about?

You and your friends can do this over email, or kick the process off over email and leave notes in each other’s mailboxes. Or, to be totally off-line, one person sets a notebook out — in the little free library, for instance — and you all take a page to write in. (Teachers, I’m sure you have a thousand great ways to coordinate this.)

Then everyone in the Book Circle contributes a book.

Pick a central location, like one person’s house, where you stash a special milk crate (or box or satchel — something distinctive but weatherproof) where everyone drops off their book. The idea with book circle is not that you’re all reading the same book at once, but that you all wind up with a different book one of the other’s has read, and the books keep flowing. Put a list in the milk crate so you know who has which book at any given time.

After you each read your new book, write up a quick review on a sheet of notepaper, sign it, and paper clip it into the back of the book. As the book circles, the reviews will accumulate, and the original owner will wind up with some reflections from friend on their favorite reads when the book comes home.

It can be tricky to just whip up a book review out of thin air, so maybe as part of setting up your circle, you can pull together a set of pre-determined questions for everyone to answer about their reads. We have some ideas!

Sample Book Circle Questions

  1. What did you like best about this book?
  2. What, if anything, would you have changed about the book’s plot?
  3. Did anything in the book remind you of your own life?
  4. Did anything in the book remind you of any of your own favorite books?
  5. If you could write a sequel to this book, how would it go?
  6. Did the ending surprise you?
  7. Would you read something else by this author?

Also remember that not everyone gets super jazzed about writing, so be prepared to make accommodations, such as recording answers to the questions on Voice Memo, or accepting typed responses over email. Teachers, again, will likely have all the best ideas for coordinating this part.

You could also reach out to your local library and see if they have any ideas for helping run or manage your book circle. After all, they’re pretty much doing everything else under the sun these days…

Happy #NationalLibraryWeek, everybody.

Audrey Homan

Audrey Homan is a Vermont-based digital media producer, and producer of The 21st Century Classroom podcast. She's worked in non-profit communications for more than a decade, and in her spare time writes tiny video games and mucks about with augmented reality and arduinos, ably assisted by five dogs. Interviewing students and yelling in PHP are the best parts of her job.

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