HKBU Library’s short story dispenser is basically a vending machine for literature that makes reading fun and more convenient

No time for books? The easy-to-use machine provides an instant, mobile alternative depending how long you have to read

Nicola Chan |

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There are only three buttons on the dispenser, for one, three or five minute reads.

Every writer dreams of having their work published; now Baptist University (HKBU) has found an innovative way to make it happen. Students there can see their work printed before their eyes – on a long strip of receipt-like paper from a short story dispenser. Think of it as a vending machine for literature.

The machine usually prints content of varying length submitted by French authors through an online platform, or excerpts from classic English literature such as Shakespeare.

But during HKBU’s Authors Week from April 26 to May 3, the library invited students and staff from the faculty of arts to submit their own writing to be included in the dispenser.

“I was delighted to be invited by my professor to share my work; as a creative writing student, I’d like my work to be read by others,” said one of the student contributors, Tang Ho-ching, 20.

The machine, which is the first of its kind in Asia, has been installed in HKBU’s Main Library since August last year. It all started when the library’s research assistant Maggie Wong Mei-ki, 27, came across a news piece about the dispenser on Facebook.

“I saw the dispensers were being put in the bus and train stations in France, and all the coffee shops as well,” said Wong.

An example of a one minute read (left) and a five minute read.
Photo: Jamie Lam/SCMP

However, she noticed that they weren’t being put in libraries or schools, so she thought that HKBU should lead the way.

Developed by French start-up group Short Edition, the orange-and-black dispenser has three buttons for users to print short stories of different expected reading time: one, three, or five minutes.

One aim of the new technology is to make the library “a real intellectual hub” again, said librarian Christopher Peter Chan. “We’re thinking more and more about how to make the library an interesting physical place on campus, because people don’t come here so much any more for books – all the books are online,” he said. “But we do want them to come here to do more than study for examinations.”

Having printed more than 9,186 stories since it was introduced, the dispenser has been warmly received by students and staff, as well as visitors to the campus, both Wong and Chan said.

Initial concerns about the eco-friendliness of the machine were also put to rest; the paper is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified, which ensures that it comes from a sustainable source, and the text is printed using thermal heat technology. A recycling box has also been placed next to the dispenser for discarding old stories.

“I think the reading culture in Hong Kong is not rich enough, especially when it comes to reading English stories,” Tang said.

She added that she would love to see more story dispensers installed across the city, as the easy bite-sized texts would allow people to gradually get into the habit of reading every day.

Tammy Ho Lai-ming, an assistant professor in the department of English at HKBU, said the simplicity of the machine’s design also made it more accessible to readers.

“If there were more options and buttons ... that might discourage people from [using] the machine,” said Ho, who selected some of the of poetry and prose pieces for Authors Week.

Wong and Chan will soon collaborate with HKBU’s language centre to distribute the winning works of their upcoming Short Story Competition.

As well as one day introducing a second short story dispenser to HKBU’s campus one day, they’d love the dispenser to offer more services, such as an easy way for readers to look up the authors of any stories

they really like, and find other works by them.

But ultimately, they’d like to build an archive of thousands of stories by staff and students, so that the dispenser will eventually only print original HKBU-produced content. Reading – and writing – has never been so accessible.

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge