Need a book? Fly to Estonia

The nation that brought the world Skype and its free internet phone calling service is branching out with a less-ambitious giveaway scheme: an airport library where books are taken but not necessarily returned.

Disclaimer: This article was originally written by Liis Kängsepp for the Wall Street JournalRepublished by the permission from WJS.


Estonia’s Tallinn Airport hosts more than 2 million passengers per year flying to 45 destinations, including Helsinki, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Copenhagen. There’s a tobacco shop that sells Cuban cigars, a men’s clothing store featuring the latest in Baltic fashions, duty-free outlets, and plenty of haunts for candy, snacks and other sundries. But no book shop. This is a glaring deficiency for an airport that bills itself as the cosiest in the world.

Airport officials, looking to remedy the problem, put out a request for book donations about six months ago in hopes of stocking a shelf or two with books flyers could borrow for trips abroad. The plea took on a life of its own, gaining traction on Facebook and other social media outlets. The staff was flooded with emails and phone calls from people wanting to send their dusty paperbacks and hardcovers on journeys around the globe.

The public’s largess, which led to a solid surplus of books, has colored the library’s operating philosophy. There is no membership fee, no stickers on the books and no security system or check-out process. There is not even a librarian.

“We are aware that probably not all books are going to find their way back to our library,” Lauri Linnamae, a communications manager for the airport, said. “We kindly ask that if you take a book and want to hold onto it, bring us back another one you don’t need.”

The philosophy likely poses little threat to the mega booksellers and small chains dotting the global airport landscape. But the initiative represents another potential model for finding a use of paper books in an age of tablets and other devices that can house several books on a hard drive or in an online collection.

Among the donors was Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and his wife, Evelin. The couple wrote dedications to readers. When all was said and done, 2,000 books piled into the airport’s new library.

“We had elderly people calling in and saying they would like to donate books, but had difficulties moving around,” Linnamae said. “So our people went to their houses, had coffee and cake, and brought back loads of books.”

Scouring the used book scene in search of second-hand reading material can lead to a lot of disappointment. Linnamae said airport officials had this in mind, leading to modest expectations.

“At first, we were a bit worried that we could get pretty much worthless paper, but reality was quite the opposite – we have a big collection of classics.”

The collection is mostly composed of works in the native Estonian, Russian or English. Swedish and Finnish books also make an appearance. Along with books by Ilves, the president, other authors include Magaret Atwood (Canadian author of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Edible Woman”); Machado de Assis (Brazilian author of “Ressurreição” and “A Mão e Luva”); and English automobile journalist Jeremy Clarkson.

There are also books by Alexandre Dumas (French author of “The Count of Monte Christo” and “The Three Musketeers”); Victor Hugo (author of “Les Misérables”); and Gustave Flaubert (author of “Madame Bovary”).

Books by Lennart Meri, Estonia’s first president after its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, also are available thanks to donations from his son.

The library at the Tallinn Airport is not the first lending operation to appear in a terminal. The library at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport allows people waiting on planes to read Dutch literature, scroll through photo books and videos about Dutch culture, and listen to Dutch music. But the material needs to stay in the library.


Cover photo: Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport/Wikimedia Commons

Other photos: Liis Kängsepp

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