A Qingfanqie travel-themed library at a coffee shop (COURTESY OF QINGFANQIE)
Get on the subway in China and what you see is some are dozing off and some are hunched over their cellphones.
"They can read instead of being tied to their phones," suggested Zhang Lijuan, founder of Qingfanqie Culture Media, a cultural company promoting reading among the public. "People can borrow and return books at any coffee shop with the 'In Library' sign." And it's free.
Qingfanqie, founded in August 2010, started the In Library program almost three years later. Thanks to it, people living in Shenzhen in south China's Guangdong Province, where the company is based, can borrow books from select coffee shops located along subway routes.
Qingfanqie has set up library corners at nearly 1,300 coffee shops and in over 30 automobile sales services shops. Corporates are welcome to get involved. Qingfanqie has worked with the fast food company KFC to build libraries of picture books for children at over 30 KFC stores in Shenzhen.
Not just Shenzhen, the operation runs in more than 60 cities across the country. Qingfanqie is now seeking to tie up with more organizations, including banks, hotels, corporate houses and even railway stations.
"We are different from public libraries," Zhang explained. "We want to set up more small libraries near offices and homes, making reading an integral part of people's lives. Most importantly, we hope to make reading easy, free and great fun for the public."
Qingfanqie works with the fast food chain KFC to run libraries for kids at over 30 KFC stores in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province (COURTESY OF QINGFANQIE)
Learning the hard way
In August 2010, the company launched Qingfanqie.com, China's first virtual library. People could register to become members, paying a deposit to borrow books. The books then were delivered to them and once read, taken back, free. The library had an online catalog of books which showed if they were available or had been borrowed, and integrated other functions such as allowing members to recommend books and post reviews.
"It was quite popular. Our membership reached 1 million last year," Zhang said nostalgically.
But though the number of members rose, the circulation rate was sluggish and the logistics costs were high. Often, the delivery time was long and books got damaged or lost in transit. All this increased overhead costs and brought negative feedback.
"As a small startup, we could not afford setting up our own logistics system. Depending on other logistics companies meant the delivery time and quality of service could not be guaranteed," Zhang said.
So she started to explore new possibilities, wondering if there was a new business model to make the company more sustainable.
Eventually, Qingfanqie initiated the In Library program, working with coffee shops to set up mini libraries on their premises. It provides 200 to 500 books to each shop, which pays a deposit. The books, covering a wide range of subjects--from science and health to the liberal arts, fashion, tourism and social sciences--are changed on a regular basis.
At the revamped site Qingfanqie.com, each coffee shop has its own webpage, displaying the books available. Since Qingfanqie's mobile app was launched in October 2014, people can use it to locate the nearest place with a library. By scanning the QR code, they can borrow and return books at any member shops in the program, which makes the transaction hassle-free.
"We want to tell people there is a free library wherever they see the In Library sign. It's just like people know there is free Internet connection wherever they see the WiFi sign," she said. Zhang is hoping the number of libraries would reach 5,000 in the next three to four years.
It's not easy to run a company providing free reading services. Zeng Xiaoxia, Qingfanqie's Communications Manager, said part of the revenue comes from setting up libraries for companies. "They pay a fee as a member of our reading program, and we provide them with 200 to 1,000 books on different subjects based on their needs," Zeng said.
The companies also have their own webpages on Qingfanqie.com. "Over 10 companies are our clients," she said. "As there are no earlier prototypes for us, we are exploring new ways to earn revenue."
A complementary role
What made Zhang set up the company?
"Several years ago, I read a survey released by UNESCO which said the Chinese read only 4.4 books a year, including textbooks, a rate lower than in many countries," she said. "There's no shortage of books in China, but why do we read so little?" Although e-devices have made reading easier, Zhang said Chinese are still not reading enough.
According to the latest National Reading Survey by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication, the Chinese read 4.58 printed books on an average each in 2015 and 3.26 digital ones.
By the end of 2014, there were 3,110 public libraries in China, according to a white paper on Progress in China's Human Rights in 2014. Surveys show Chinese are either too busy to read or have difficulties in locating a public reading place as the number of bookshops is shrinking and the number of public libraries is insufficient.
"So I wanted to build a platform to cultivate people's reading habit and encourage more people to read books," she said. "Promoting reading is not the job of the government alone. We can play a complementary role."
Zhang said Qingfanqie is not competing with traditional libraries and bookstores. "We all work to promote reading but each has a different focus, advantages, and different methods," she said. "Traditional libraries are well-stocked with books on most subjects. They also have archives for people to get historical information and do research. We don't focus on large stocks in our libraries but on reading hours and circulation of each book."
Growing reading interests
Zhang's company has a department which researches people's reading interests and proposes topics for reading clubs and events. Like-minded readers gather together to talk about books and share opinions in coffee shops.
"We not only need to make reading convenient, but also to cultivate people's reading interests," Zhang said. "We look for creative ways to make reading great fun."
In the summer of 2013, when the BBC Sherlock TV series craze swept China, Zhang found an opportunity. Qingfanqie set up seven Sherlock Holmes libraries in cooperation with publishing houses and detective fiction-themed cafés. Several events were hosted, such as interactive games and sleuthing competitions, attracting detective fiction fans and adding to the company's coffers.
Qingfanqie continues to be innovative. For example, in cooperation with publishing houses and local tourist offices, it is inviting experienced travelers to share their travel stories as well as recommending books.
"Travelers will have a richer and more fruitful travel experience if they read about the history and culture of the destination ahead," Zhang said. "That is the magic of reading."
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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