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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Dear Prudence

A life of exuberance and eccentricity

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Check Out Libby

The workings of a virtual library

Jessica Duffin Wolfe

Libby, an app available through libraries across Canada, meets readers where they are: on their phones. Since its debut in 2017, it has combined the best of e-commerce and digital book design in a space where the reads are, appropriately, free. Sign in with your library card once and — boom! You can read or listen to audiobooks, browse curated collections and search for particular titles, place holds, and get notifications when items show up on your virtual hold shelf. You can change text size and colour to suit your needs, and you can bookmark your page across devices.

Though it’s not yet well known — many users still rely on its clunkier predecessor, OverDrive — Libby gives people all sorts of reasons to read on their phones or tablets. Maybe they’re commuting and prefer audiobooks. Maybe their arms are full. Maybe it’s dark, and turning on a light would disturb a sleeping companion — infant or adult. If you can’t get to your local branch to pick up a loan, you can just tap to add a hold every time you encounter an interesting review or hear a compelling author interview. The book will show up on the shelf in your pocket in a few days or weeks: here’s this new and interesting thing that you have only three weeks to enjoy. It’s a nice little reminder to keep up with your reading.

The sage behind all this fun, in Toronto at least, has been Maria Cipriano, who managed the city’s Libby collection until her retirement this past July. Talking to Cipriano is like pulling back the curtain on the key wizard at a general switchboard. And, indeed, she sees herself as a kind of unknown influencer of reading habits at the Toronto Public Library. When she took over the job in 2011, the collection included just 5,000 titles. Today, patrons can browse over 180,000 — often through catchy, thoughtfully curated lists. “This role has the ability to influence reading,” she says with a sly laugh. “You should use your power for good.”

Torontonians borrow more ebooks than anyone else in the world; this past year, they checked out over six million items through Libby and OverDrive. That’s thanks in no small part to dedicated librarians who search the collection daily for good options to throw to the top of the Staff Picks page, looking for buzzy books that have available copies. Political audiobooks go fast. Romance and self-help are always in demand. Their lists refreshed, the staff can watch as — click, click, click — the copies get snapped up, boosting the circulation numbers. (You, too, can watch this bibliographic dashboard to see which ebooks are getting borrowed right now — a pastime that, depending on your outlook, is mind-numbing or deeply amusing or very likely both.)

While the librarians hack our habits, Libby helps to gently gamify our favourite legacy ­pastime by creating a feeling of subtle competition both with oneself and with others waiting in the hold line. Goaded on by the ease of borrowing, when you find your shelf brimming, you must read more and more quickly to keep up and save yourself from the dismal failure of letting a title you’ve barely thumbed suddenly vanish. Blast . . . game over. While you can hold on to physical books past their due dates and accrue fines, Libby whispers, even screams, “No! You may not be so lax. Read you must!” And so on we go. Last year around this time, when I added a slew of holds based on all those annual “best of” lists, they all flooded into my device in the same week in March. Suddenly I had to read four books in two weeks to save myself from losing. And I did.

This sense of cheery competition extends to other readers you can see on the dashboard, waiting anonymously alongside you for holds. These are people with whom you share an interest and a common cause, but also a low-stakes territorial struggle over an object — the perfect basis for friendship. There’s a smug pleasure in seeing you’re the first to borrow something that you know is going to be hot, and then looking on as the holds climb into the hundreds behind you. As you watch, the library adds more copies, first just one more, then two, then a dozen, until there are 145 copies in circulation with ten people waiting for each one. You know as you spin through the pages that 145 people are reading alongside you, with hundreds more stepping on your heels, ready to take your place if you don’t go quickly enough. A kind of urban Baudelairian sublime rises from this sense of strangers around you, not walking but reading.

Libby isn’t a social networking app, yet it tells a story of what we have in common and reminds us of how we overlap in the world. Each ballooning hold count is a host of people — the faceless community that gathers around a publication. Here we’re brought together along one very specific axis of our lives. We may have nothing else in common besides a particular title, but, thanks to Libby, we know we share that.

These interests may be the pleasures and vices of the small and bookish, but pleasures they are. In this moment of the supposed decline of reading in favour of online browsing and feed scrolling, Libby’s pocket of the internet shelters swarms of a new kind of reader. In its rising hold numbers are heartening portents of fellow bookworms, armies of them, multiplying like the follower counts of influencers. We readers have always been hushed, always kept our faces shaded by paperbacks or hardbacks — and here we remain, quietly reading.

Jessica Duffin Wolfe is a professor of digital communications and journalism at Humber College, in Toronto.