Notes from the Underground: An interview with Chris Gilson

Chris Gilson

A few weeks back, we reported on an initiative spearheaded by one Chris Gilson that would see the introduction of book swapping facilities at London Underground stations. Gilson himself commented on the article and, connection made, your humble reporter sensed the potential for an interview (nose of a bloodhound, rest of his face don’t look too good either, etc.). So, eh, here it is.


BM: What prompted the idea for the book swap?

CG: In early 2010 the Guardian ran an article on the Wimbledon station book swap. I’m on the committee of my local neighbourhood group, and I was inspired to set up a similar scheme in West Ealing. It was very successful so I thought, why couldn’t most stations in London have one of these?


BM: How will it work once implemented?

CG: On a very basic level, it’s as simple as having bookshelves in stations that people take and leave books from. There will be one or two people (Book Swap Champions) who live nearby and use the station who will be responsible for keeping it tidy and making sure it has enough books, which are actually very easy to get from Freecycle. Once we have a critical mass of Book Swaps (say 50-100 stations), then we have the possibility for things like the widespread use of Twitter hashtags and even the development of iPhone apps that log what books are dropped off where, so people can almost use them as surrogate libraries.


BM: What kind of support has it had from the Mayor’s office?

CG: After the #ideas4London win, the Mayor voiced his support so long as it was of no cost to taxpayers (it won’t cost them a penny). He also said that he would take it to TfL to help get their agreement to have them installed in stations. We anticipate working with his office over the coming months to help to make this project a reality.


BM: What kind of people have been volunteering so far? Has it been difficult trying to corral volunteers, with times tough all over and London not exactly famous for its community spirit?

CG: So far, it’s been mostly people (mostly women in fact) who are active on social media and have some level of community involvement already. We’ve found it relatively easy to find people who have an interest in helping out; the campaign appeals to them because it promotes reading and the reuse of books, and might help to make Londoners commutes a bit more bearable. London seems to be crammed with individuals, and community and charitable organisations who want to make the city a better place (witness the post-riots clean up in August), so it’s just a matter with connecting with them!


BM: It’s obviously a pretty big thing to try to get off the ground – what have been the primary obstacles you’ve had to overcome so far?

CG: It’s still early in the campaign, so the big obstacles are still ahead. The most important one is to work with the Mayor’s Office to get TfL on side to have these put into stations. The other problem is transport – it costs. We have 15,000 books stored in West London that we need to get out to stations all across the city between now and August. We’re working on getting grant(s) for transport, though. Getting the shelves and books we need will be relatively easy by comparison.


BM: What response has there been, if any, from publishers?

CG: One publisher has been kind enough to give us 15,000 books that we are hoping to use to help start Book Swaps across London, but other than that, we’ve not approached publishers directly. Quite a few of our followers on Twitter are publishers, so they are aware of what our campaign is all about.


Follow the progress of Chris’ campaign at the Book Swaps for London blog

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