At Emory University’s Woodruff Library, stories don’t just live on the shelves. They exist in The Short Story Dispenser, printed on glossy receipts and dispensed with the click of a button. Students who stroll through the library basement may find themselves face to face with the quirky new machine just outside of Banjo Coffee. 

A metal cylinder with three buttons and a tall glass rectangle with the words “Short Story Dispenser,” the machine’s instructions are simple: “Select, Read, Enjoy.” As of Feb. 13, Emory’s new toy for voracious readers and procrastination-prone students alike has finally arrived on campus. 

(Anna Schwartz / Staff Photographer)

The Short Story Dispenser acts as a kind of vending machine for stories — a library within a library. Users can select from a one, three or five minute read, and like a Polaroid camera, the machine will spit out a poem or short story from its internal library to take home. In a world increasingly dominated by e-books and AI, the kiosk presents the perfect blend of online and old-school, automated and traditional. Students can read their short stories in line for coffee, as a mindless study break or on the go. But, the dispenser’s purpose is larger than just pure entertainment.

Maggie Beker’s job as Emory Arts project coordinator is to focus student engagement on all types of artistic disciplines across campus. For visual arts, the task naturally attracts opportunities such as the installation of student art in the B. Jones Gallery at the Emory Career Center. But, for other kinds of art, like creative writing, it’s more difficult. 

“It’s not as easy, but I always joke [that] you put a nail hole in the wall and you can hang a piece of art,” Beker said, laughing. “But, how do we support our students whose work is more solitary or is on paper? How does everybody get to enjoy that work? How can they stumble across that instead of needing to know where the club is and needing to find the zine?” 

After Googling around, she found her answer in a YouTube video of the short story dispenser at the Center for Fiction in New York. She contacted Short Edition, an international company based in France that creates dispensers that have been installed around the world, from Paris, France to Melbourne, Australia and train stations to universities. Students from the Bay Area may recognize the machine from various Bay Area Rapid Transit stations. Similarly, people from Canada might remember the machine from Edmonton International Airport.

Short Edition is a publishing house that has been collecting work for the past 12 years and specializes in short literature. Founded in 2015, Short Edition places machines around the world and publishes in different languages with the idea that art should be free and provide a global perspective Though the company is headquartered in France, it publishes over 400 American writers. 

“The idea is to expand the minds and creativity worldwide as you may pick up a story today written by someone in, let’s say, Singapore,” Kristan Leroy, international sales director at Short Edition, said. “The main goal is to provide an un-connected break to read short bites of fiction as one tends to spend a bit too much time on social media and students rarely have the time to sit down with a good book.”

Many of Short Edition’s published writers come from prominent BA and MFA creative writing programs, like Carnegie Mellon University (Penn.) and The Pennsylvania State University. With its renowned creative writing program, Emory was a logical choice to place a dispenser. Beker noted that the company also resonated with Emory’s emphasis on sustainability. Leroy explained that the dispenser has a “print on demand” concept so there is no waste and no ink or cartridge to change. It even uses a special kind of thermal paper that is recyclable and phenol-free. The particular machine in Woodruff Library is a recycled machine that had been used as a demo at the American Library Association and Public Library conferences. 

(Emory Wheel / Chaya Tong)

The company found that there was a demand from universities to showcase student work alongside Short Edition’s library of fiction and creative nonfiction. Through an online portal, school administrators like Beker can upload student’s pieces for the dispenser to distribute. 

The dispenser is connected to Short Edition’s backend software, which provides the company’s content in addition to Emory material and sends orders to the printer to deliver stories at random. 

“The idea is to never get the same story, poem or comic twice,” Leroy said. 

Student’s work might even go worldwide. If the editorial team at Short Edition likes a piece that was submitted by a student, they can offer students a publishing contract with the company. 

Emory Arts harnessed the uploading feature to start an ongoing open call for writing submissions from the Emory community. And, starting Feb. 24, the Emory machine began dispensing its first batch of student work. 

Blake Miller (23C) used the Short Story Dispenser and received a five-minute read titled “Wildfire.” 

“I came up [to the dispenser] for a couple of reasons,” he said. “My friend, Emma, is a creative writing major, and we talk about this all the time, and she was talking about how Emory was maybe going to put students’ [work] into the short story material. I was studying in the library and wanted to read something before I went and studied.”
The Short Story Dispenser has already made a splash in the short time since its installment, with about a hundred clicks per day. Over 60% of the time, the machine prints a one-minute story,  as opposed to 20% three-minute stories and 20% five-minute stories. Noon to 11 p.m. are the highest traffic times, especially on Wednesdays and Thursdays. 

Beker hopes the machine can provide something deeper than a study break. 

“The fun thing about art is that you don’t have to like it,” she said. “You can still get that moment of enjoying it as thinking about it and having that experience of forming an opinion around a creative work. I hope that they enjoy taking that one to five minutes to have a moment to think creatively in that way and to form an opinion about something.” 

Besides engaging students intellectually, the short story dispenser is a form of casual interdisciplinary interaction. One Short Edition university partner ran a series of writing contests. Leroy noted that the first winner was an engineering student, the second winner was a non-native speaker, and someone from the English department was the third. 

“We hope our concept will provide them with a voice to share their ideas, creativity, whether they be STEM, Humanities or other pre-graduates,” Leroy said. “It is meant to be a program for all, art for free and anyone can become a writer.”

So the Short Story Dispenser, that small glowing box outside Banjo, waits patiently in the library basement. It’s better than a vending machine. You never know what you might get, who you might meet, what you might find. 

“It keeps art from becoming furniture,” Beker said. “I always think about [how] once you paint on the wall,  you’re committed to that, whereas when you refresh a gallery every year or like this thing that’s always a rolling deadline, always fresh work, you get to encounter something every day. ”

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Chaya Tong (she/her) (25C) is from the San Francisco Bay Area, majoring in English and biology. Outside of The Wheel, she enjoys singing in her acapella group, working with Fair Fight U and serving on the University Senate Campus Life Committee.