Wichita Public Library works to bring in a new generation of readers with short story machines

In this age of fast-paced information and media consumption, almost everything is at your fingertips. With this program, short stories from up-and-coming authors are just one click away, but not in the way you think. It’s not an app on your phone or a website—it’s a machine.

The Short Edition machines, currently on rotation at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita in the General Pediatrics Clinic, the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center and Reverie Coffee Roasters on Douglas, are part of a small pilot program across the United States. The program, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, brought 12 Short Edition short story dispensers to just four American cities.

It all started when the Knight Foundation heard about the short story dispensers produced by the French company, Short Edition, that first started placing machines in public spaces in 2015. From there, cities affiliated with the Knight Foundation, were invited to fill out grant proposals for the machines. Wichita was granted three of the machines and the remaining nine were distributed in cities in Ohio, South Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Loïc Giraut, business development manager of Short Editions, estimated the database where the stories are stored has about 1,000 stories in English, something they are working on expanding. In general, he said there’s a big drive to grow the program in the United States.

Of the 250 something machines worldwide, Giraut said about 100 of those can be found in the United States.

“We are looking to make the US a major partner in the future,” Giraut said.

The grant from the Knight Foundation only lasts for two years, but Cynthia Berner, director of libraries for the Wichita Public Library, said she intends to keep the machines in Wichita once the term expires in a little under a year.

“It’s just fun to see people engage with literature, particularly people who were lapsed readers and had just gotten out of the habit and maybe were spending a lot of time nose down into their technology,” Berner said.

The machines, said Sean Jones, communications specialist for the libraries, are “pretty simple to use.”

Patrons of the machines just press a button and a story is randomly generated onto a sheet of receipt paper that is printed through a slim slot.

“I like to think of it as like a CVS receipt where’s it’s really long and it has a story on it instead of items that you’ve purchased,” Jones said.

The stories are completely free to the public and the text on the receipt paper is in a larger font for all readers to enjoy. Story genre is automatically generated from a catalog of about 20 themes, Giraut said.

In Wichita, you’ll see two different versions of the short story dispenser. The machines at Reverie and the VA center are standard and produce stories of varying lengths. Users can select stories that take one, three or five minutes to read. Then, there’s the machine at the KU pediatric clinic that distinguishes stories based on age groups. That machine has two buttons.

“You can select a story for an adult or you can select a story for a child,” Berner said.

Berner said maintaining the machines is pretty simple especially with a system dashboard that sends out alerts from the machines when something is awry.

“The only maintenance that we’ve had to do over the year of the program is to come out and put in new rolls of paper as those get used,” Berner said.

Of the three locations, the machine at Reverie Coffee Roasters has been the most popular. In fact, Berner said it’s one of the top three most-frequented machines associated with the Knight Foundation grant program. In about a year, the machine has printed about 9,500 stories.

“You can sit in Reverie and drink your coffee and read a short story that someone in the world submitted,” Jones said.

Initially, Berner said the machine was only placed at Reverie temporarily with plans to move it around town regularly to keep interest in the program, but with its sustained popularity, it might have found a forever-home.

“The idea of putting it in a retail location in high traffic has done extremely well for us,” Berner said. “It will probably stay for the foreseeable future.”

Initially, Andrew Gough, owner of Reverie, expected “short-lived excitement,” but has been blown-away by the machine’s continued popularity.

“I feel like the reason ours is so busy is because people know it’s there,” Gough said. “I just feel like it fits our atmosphere, fits our vibe, it fits our brand and what we are hoping to achieve — bigger things than just making coffee.”

Those bigger things, Gough said, are mainly about promoting literacy in the community.

“There is one solution that can solve so many social problems we have in our community,” Gough said. “If every kid can get out of school reading, we can see every other statistic that’s negative go down.”

Berner said the whole project has been exciting for the libraries because it’s shown people what a library looks like in a society dominated by technology.

“The other thing that I think has been so important in addition to just promoting literacy, in general, is helping people understand that libraries are much more than places that just sit and wait for you to come in and take advantage of them,” Berner said. “Libraries now are very much apart of their communities. We work with partners on our broader initiatives like literacy, like digital inclusion.”

One of the things Berner said she loves the most is that Short Editions is more than just about literacy, it’s about bringing up the next generation of writers as well.

“They are really interested in promoting literacy, but the other thing that I think is so impressive about them is that they really are using short edition dispensers as a way to encourage writing as well,” Berner said. “I think it’s also been fun to see how people have been inspired to write short stories because of it.”

Every month, Short Edition accepts submissions of original content through the ongoing program called Rendez-vous. To get your own short stories published, visit the website at https://short-edition.com/en. Submitted stories should not exceed 8,000 characters and stories submitted for children should be no more than 7,000 characters long. Short Edition is only looking for fictional writings, but will accept almost any genre.

Locations and Hours

KU-Wichita General Pediatrics Clinic

The machine is located in the waiting room at 620 N. Carriage Parkway. The clinic is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Reverie Coffee Roasters

Reverie Coffee Roasters, 2202 E. Douglas, is open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

VA Medical Center

The Short Edition machine is in a waiting room at 5500 E. Kellogg.