Consider a morning commute on public transit: stuffy, slow, then slower, then delayed, and, ugh, you’re going to be late again. Amidst all the annoyances, however, that time in transit is ideal in one very specific way—an opportunity to catch up on your reading. Pull out the novel you’re halfway through, and presto: instant escape.
The Underground Library is the result of an assignment at Miami Ad School, where students were tasked with finding a creative way to advertise a project for the New York Public Library. The catch? It had to be something that wasn’t possible at least five years ago. Art directors Keri Tan and Max Pilwat and copywriter Ferdi Rodriguez teamed up to engage what is perhaps the Big Apple’s most captive audience, using technology to direct straphangers back to the printed page.
The concept is relatively simple: Subway smartphone users swipe at a special poster promoting a curated selection of books on offer, after which the first 10 pages will be automatically downloaded to their mobile device in an easy-to-read ePub or PDF format. Once they reach their stop and emerge aboveground, a map will pop up and direct them to the nearest available NYPL branches to nab the physical copy.
Determining the kind of tech that could make it happen required some serious research for the trio. What form of digital communication would perform best in a speeding subterranean car, crowded with commuters? They settled on Near-Field Communication (NFC), which can establish an automatic connection in less than a second within a limited range that maxes out at 20 centimeters; ultimately, this would reduce the potential for unintended signal interceptions, plus it doesn’t require manually pairing up with Bluetooth to make the transfer, or waiting for consistent Wi-Fi under the streets of Manhattan. At the moment, Google Android and Windows 8 have NFC capabilities, but the team believes it’s only a matter of time before it’s iPhone-compatible as well. Changing the reading list would simply be a matter of updating the NFC chip embedded in the poster.
Now, it’s probably been a while since a lot of these New Yorkers have stepped foot inside a NYPL, much less one that’s not in their neighborhood.* No, you can’t just cruise in, show your smartphone, and ask to borrow the print edition. Participants would need a valid library card, which requires a teensy bit of back-end work to acquire. However, books can be returned at any location, meaning you don’t have to hit the same destination twice (lots more helpful details here—worth reading if you’re living in NYC and haven’t signed up yet).
So would the creators consider the experiment a bust if people just ended up downloading the rest? Nope! "We consider it a win-win for both publishers and the New York Public Library," Tan says. Reading, in any form, is a good thing. "And there’s still a subset of the community in New York who would rather borrow from the library rather than paying for it. This includes students of all ages who would rather pay for their textbooks or for prolific readers who can finish a book fairly quickly."
The campaign is currently just a concept, but it definitely seems like one that could get people jazzed about heading back to those awesome places where, believe it or not, they’ll lend you great books and tons of other stuff completely free of charge. What a world!
*Actually, the NYPL experienced an increase in usage last year, with a whopping 18 million visitors and 28 million items circulated. Impressive. Most impressive.