Ideal to real: How to get books onto public buses?

An experiment: can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

Every morning, Idealist staffer Amy Potthast reads books with her son on their 30-minute bus ride to his preschool.


Experts say you should read with your kids 30 minutes a day. Photo by Khaleeka (Flickr/Creative Commons).

The bus route is long and circuitous, and travels through a mixed-race, mixed-income neighborhood full of families. Frequently other parents and their children board the bus, and Amy draws an attentive audience of kids who sit nearby and listen politely to the stories, looking at the book illustrations.

Amy keeps thinking that on long, family-populated buses like theirs, there should be milk crates at the front full of donated books for young riders and their parents to read on 20- to 30-minute bus rides.

She knows it’s a pipe dream, and realizes bus drivers may resist having to keeping up with books on the bus. In chatting with others, the main considerations seem to be:

1. Getting more parents on board in advance, including actual endorsements from and partnerships with groups such as the local PTAs, neighborhood associations, and Head Starts.

2. Working with drivers’ unions to get buy-in and to ensure that implementing such an idea wouldn’t impact the drivers’ ability to drive safely. The local transit authority is very sensitive to driver safety. They’re also careful with their public image.  If books caused children to misbehave in order to hear stories, the plan could backfire.

3. Placing the milk crates in a secure place is important: is there a way to use unused space that doesn’t compromise any seating or safety, and fastening the crates so they can’t slide around?

4. Building a strong grassroots organizing approach, bus-by-bus, with grassroots funding (e.g. private resources), including a pilot on a couple of lines first.

5. Determining policies regarding book borrowing and donation, then educating bus riders about the rules.

Amy would to love see this project grow and succeed. Can you help her with some advice?

  • Do you know of any other projects that place free reading materials on buses?
  • What organizations should be included in getting the project off the ground?
  • Who might fund this kind of project?
  • What resistance should we be prepared to respond to?
  • Do you know of any research that supports the value of reading to kids?
  • What other considerations should Amy keep in mind?

Leave a comment below and if the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!

Do you have an idea that’s just starting to brew? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, email julia at

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Comments (13)

  1. Jeremy writes:
    April 12, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    I was just recently in Brazil. In the capital, Brasilia, local businesses stock bus stops with reading material like books and magazines. You pick something up while you’re waiting, and can either bring it with you or put it back. I think the expectation is that you’ll eventually return the book to a bus stop or contribute something new to the pile. It didn’t seem at all formalized, just a local community initiative that caught on.

    For Amy: Maybe to get additional reading material, on the heels of Celeste’s creative marketing post, local businesses could “sponsor” books by putting their stickers, cards, etc. on the covers? Maybe the bins, too, could be sponsored in some way. Isn’t there a big, trendy book store in downtown Portland? Maybe they’d be interested in leading/sponsoring the whole initiative.

  2. Amy Potthast writes:
    April 12, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    That’s a great idea – I hadn’t thought of sponsor funding. Powells is our local famous amazing bookstore — definitely worth a chat. THANKS

  3. Craig Wiroll writes:
    April 12, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    I think you are set! With the publicity this has already gained (enough for me to stumble upon it) Powell’s would be mad not to slap their name on a box and donate some books. All you’d have to then do it talk with the bus company about the logistics of placing/securing the crate inside of the bus.

    This looks extremely promising. Good luck to you!

  4. Erica Scarborough writes:
    April 12, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    This is an incredible idea! I agree with Craig, Powell’s would be a great place to go for support! Hope to see this on Tri-Met soon!!

  5. Kirsten writes:
    April 12, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    Great idea – this has actually been done very successfully in Hamburg, Germany. They have installed small book shelves and people can donate and borrow books (without checking them out, it really is based on an honor system). I have not heard anybody voice any complaints, everybody likes it a lot! I can provide more information, Amy, if you want (all links I could find are in German, but I am happy to translate). Hope this comes to the States too!

  6. Jen writes:
    April 13, 2011 at 9:22 am

    The only thing additional concern that I would want to consider is whose responsibility it would be to disinfect the books daily, especially around flu season. That could become a major issue for kids & parents alike.

  7. Amy Potthast writes:
    April 13, 2011 at 11:40 am

    I would love more information about how this has been done in Hamburg – will you email me, amy at And (idealistically) I wouldn’t mind if kids took books home with them as long as there were a steady supply of replacements. More books at home is correlated with better reading outcomes! That might be unrealistic though in terms of keeping books on buses. I’m guessing in Hamburg, it’s reading for all ages, not just children?

    Great point. Not sure books could be sanitized, but maybe a note on each book or on the book bin, to remind folks to wash their hands when they get to their destination — good practice after riding the bus anyway.

  8. nadja writes:
    April 13, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    What about instead of milk crates (space/security issues) you see if there could be a Plexiglases “shelf” attached to the inside of the buss. Runs the length of the bus, has front,bottom and sides, and the books slide in through the top. That way it seems the books are secure when not in use and there’s minimal use of space. The only time it might be a problem is if the bus is upside down (books fall out) and really at that time it might be the last thing to worry about.

  9. Debby writes:
    April 13, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    I can understand the merits of such an idea – it sounds great. As an avid reader, I love nothing more than encouraging new readers. However, there are some factors that any such program would have to consider –
    * preventing the spread of germs
    * appropriate selection of books – and who gets to decide that?
    * books that can get lose, will get lose. Who is responsible for books that cause someone to slip/fall? In an accident they may go flying and cause pretty significant harm
    * worse – who is responsible if the books are thrown at someone?

    Maybe a better plan would be to have volunteer story readers on the bus. That would still have a number of logistic issues, but would address the liability and safety concerns.

  10. Katy Mayo-Hudson writes:
    April 14, 2011 at 1:26 am

    I love this idea. A couple of thoughts: could there be a hand sanitizer dispenser alongside the book to help with the germ issue?

    Other organizations that occur to me are Multnomah County Library – perhaps they could donate books that they are taking off the shelves? – and Title Wave, which is where the library sells their old books for cheap. Also to note is The Children’s Book Bank, which supplies books to kids without home libraries. Also think about contacting Scholastic – they have a big warehouse in town and love to get their name out and about . If they were a sponsor it would be great business for them….

    As for research, you don’t have to look far! here are a few:

    Keep me posted via my email above. I am a teacher and instructional coach to teachers, and am passionate about getting books into the hands of kids who do not have libraries at home. Great idea!!!!


  11. Nate writes:
    April 14, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    Last time I was in town I saw that buses in Albuquerque, New Mexico have children’s books on board… I think they have a partnership with the public library…

  12. Pam writes:
    April 18, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    Hey Amy, great idea! A few ideas ran across my mind:
    1) Instead of the shifting box, flatten! – place books in plastic file bins (picture the black plastic bins that are secured into a wall and stick out at a slight angle, deep and wide enough to hold folders, etc.). This way, you could have about six of these screwed into the broad, tall wall behind where the bus driver sits. This would allow for bins to be at different height levels – two for adults, two for teens (etc.), and two for little people. Each bin could hold up to 6-15 books, depending on thicknesses.
    2) Contact your public libraries – perhaps each can donate a few books a month at the bus station nearest each library location across town.
    3) Contact local bookstores – perhaps they have a few gently used books each month to donate? It seems like you’ve got the idea with Powell’s!
    4) Contact Starbucks, coffee shops, or any other high-profile local businesses that want to be seen “doing good” in the community; funding this endeavor can only make them look so!
    5) You’ll have to consider the issue of replacing stolen or mistreated books. For instance, on one bus you may find that all books have been stolen from the bins, and on another bus, it’s chock full of books. What will do you do then? Chronic book absences for certain bus routes or areas will become a problem unless you anticipate how to do inventory, restock, and keep the flow of available books going. This program has the potential to climb “high” and then fizzle out. Be careful this doesn’t happen: consider how to incorporate fresh, new, exciting literature if you want this to last; this is where your funding comes in to get more books each month. Otherwise, you may hear, “I read this one already” and cell phones will pop out. Ideally, community members will do their share in exchanging content from bus to bus.
    6) Have a way for community members to directly donate to this idea. If they read the books on the buses, then they should also have a “say” in what stories get “on the bus”. This will make them feel more connected, “Hey, there goes my old Dickens’ book! Look! Someone in the back corner is reading it!” Set up drop-box locations around town, i.e., local coffee shops, bookstores, libraries, newsstands, bus stations, etc., that encourage people to donate gently-used books.
    7) Decide whether you are focusing on adult or children’s literature? Or both? Or more? The public will need guidelines on this.
    8) What to do if people accidentally take books home? Do they have to bring them back? What if they don’t? Do they have to put them on the same bus they found them? The public will need guidelines on this.
    9) Get a group of people committed to helping you succeed in this.
    Hope this helps! Take care!

  13. Crystal writes:
    June 28, 2011 at 11:28 am

    Great idea! One thing to keep in mind is that at least here in Pittsburgh, you don’t have the same bus traveling the same route all the time. A bus might be one route today, another route the next. When buying bus ads, you can only choose the garage that they are based out of, not the individual route.

    HTH! Good luck!

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