Books on the B train (and other lines)

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“Take it, read it and return it”: two women bring a mobile library project to the New York subway system


  • Your commute just got more interesting. The "Books on the Subway" project has left thousands of volumes on most subway lines throughout the city, and riders are encouraged to borrow them as long as they're returned to the subway. Photo: Johannes Martin, via flickr

Hollie Fraser was living in London in 2012 when she decided to start leaving some of her books on the Tube in effort to “[break] people out of picking up the newspaper or the phone and [get] them reading again.” The advertising agency Fraser worked for sent out a supportive tweet about her project and it caught the attention of Rosy Saliba Kehdi, who worked at a different ad agency in New York City. Kehdi and Fraser partnered to bring the mobile library project to the subway system, where word has spread far enough to garner guest distributors like Emma Watson. Straphangers can identify “Books on the Subway” books by their distinctive sticker, which encourages finders to borrow them for as long as they like, provided the reader return it to the subway when they’re done. Fraser and Kehdi talked to Our Town about the collaboration that is improving commutes throughout the city.

You told the New York Times you’ll be distributing 20 books every day between now and September. How do you make that happen?

RSK: Both of us have books every single day, but then whenever we have more books than we can handle, we try to split it up among some volunteers that we have around the city. That way we are able to drop even a larger quantity of books across different corners of the New York subway. So we have people in Coney Island, we have people in Queens. We have people that commute from New Jersey, so they can drop things on the Path.

HF: We always make sure they’re never in the way and they’re always like in a kind of plain location and easily portable. One of my favorite spots is in Union Square where the signage is to the subways, to like the 6 train and stuff. There’s a ledge, and so people are always looking at signs to read where they’re going, and then obviously when you put a book in front of it, it kind of is really obvious and clear this one was left there on purpose. We do one title per day, for normally the five days of the week, and not so much on weekends.

Of the books you’ve distributed, which were you most excited about?

RSK: We’re always super excited about all of them equally, but ones that have a specific partnership, we always are even more interested in. So like the one that we did for “Girl Rising,” which is this nonprofit organization that helps girls in underprivileged countries get more education and access to books, et cetera. So that was one partnership that we were very, very excited about.

HF: Yesterday we left a book called “Searching for Normal,” and it was about a lady who lost her daughter to depression. She committed suicide and it was all about her search for kind of normality and getting help with kind of the problems they went through and it’s mental health awareness month at the moment, so we kind of tied into that. So that was really great.

And the project has expanded around the world, right?

HF: I created Books on the Move Global which is a website that hosts all of the branches, starting to do it in their city and they’ve all grown independently. I just kind of give them a breakdown of how to do it, and what the aim of the project is and what we’re about. There are some amazing people all over the world getting involved and talking to publishers in their country. They’ve got the same sticker that says, “Take it, read it, and return it,” and they’ve started doing it on their transport system in their country, as well. So that’s really cool.

If you can narrow it down to one thing, what is this project about? What do you hope people get out of it?

HF: I mean when I started it, it was just to get people reading. It was just like to kind of tap into that community of people who were reading on the subway every day and kind of creating community of people who enjoy reading.

RSK: That is and will always be our primary aim, but there’s also more things we can do with these books. If it’s a book about mental health awareness or if it’s a book about cystic fibrosis, which is something we did earlier this month, or if it’s a book about autism, you can use books to spread awareness about all these causes. We also do a lot of books that are related to women’s empowerment and feminism, etcetera. So it’s a platform to not only help people get easier access to books, but also give them books that will help these causes.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Madeleine Thompson can be reached at

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