Most of the time I am pretty much death on what comes out of vending machines, with possibly the exception of water. This is because the stuff in them has been relegated through uber-processing to what famed neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf calls “food-like substances,” and rightfully deserves the title of “junk.” However, my heart leapt with joy when I learned that on Saturday, May 20 at 2 p.m. in Tanner, there will be an unveiling of what is fair to say a “vending machine with virtue,” at least potentially.

I suppose the virtuous vending machine could also be looked upon as an ATM of sorts, except that instead of money, you will be able to check out something even more priceless, books from our library! Its official title is a “book lending machine” and it is the first one in the entire state of Alabama. Paula Laurita, the Executive Director for the Athens-Limestone Public Library told a crowd at the Chamber of Commerce about how the community had come together to make this happen through a project called Branching Out. The machine is located in the strip mall in Tanner on Swanner Blvd, safely tucked away from the elements under an awning between Tanner Medical Clinic and Mighty Warrior Church. The address is 20104 Swanner Blvd, and there will be refreshments as well other giveaways, including gift cards.

Here’s how it works: You swipe your library card to get in, and then access the machine’s computer to see if the book you desire is in there. Books will be rotated in and out, and there will be hardbacks, paperbacks, audiobooks, as well as DVDs. In addition, you will be able to return items to the machine, somewhat like taking DVDs back to any Redbox irrespective of the location of the original machine. Some of you who grew up in cities remember the Bookmobiles that would come to the neighborhood grocery store parking lot on Saturdays. You climbed the steps to the bus, walked through and looked at what was displayed on the shelves, checked them out with your paper library card from a human seated at a desk, (who was also the bus driver) and then exited the bus. This is fancier, and there are no humans involved, but it’s the same idea. Paula told me, “This is not meant to replace the library; it is to add convenience and increase service in the county, especially to people who have limited transportation.” She chuckled as she also referred to it as “bite-sized reading.”

Humans will be on the premises for the ribbon cutting on May 20 beginning at 2 p.m., and if you don’t have a library card, you can apply for one. And, speaking of humans, many such beings worked together to make this happen – Steelcase, BBVA/Compass Bank, Brad Stovall, Tanner Medical Clinic, Southside Pharmacy, CR Mechanical Construction, and the Athens Limestone Library Foundation, to name a few.

So, why is this such a big deal? Because literacy and a love of reading more than text snippets is what keeps people sharp and free. When Steve and I were running a school at an orphanage in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, I met a man who was an expert educator as well as someone who had done research on the impact of literacy in contemporary culture. You know what he told me? That the one thing gangs have in common, irrespective of their race, location, ethnic background, or “mission statement” is a disproportionately high rate of illiteracy. In addition, the leaders of the gangs typically are the ones who can read and write. In a word, leaders are readers, and hopefully this little vending machine will be able to inspire some who might not darken a library door to check out a book under cover of night. Many thanks to all who have made this possible, and may it be the first of many in our county, and the rest of the state.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

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