Changemaker: Catherine Gaggioli, Books on the T co-founder

Catherine McGloin

Catherine Gaggioli, 28, has always loved books, but despite teasing from friends and family she knew she wouldn’t become a librarian.

“People used to tell me when I was little, ‘Oh you’ll probably become a librarian because you love books so much,’ and I was like, ‘No that’s not how it works, just because I love books doesn’t mean I’m going to become a librarian.'”

She did go on to earn a master’s degree in library and information science from Simmons University, but she did not become a librarian.

Gaggioli is a book fairy.

In 2017, with fellow Simmons classmate Araceli Hintermeister and local author Judy Gelman, Gaggioli founded Books on the T, an organization committed to spreading the joy of reading and literacy across Greater Boston by dropping free books in and around MBTA stations.

During the day Gaggioli is a research archivist at the Massachusetts Archives and Commonwealth Museum, but during her commute she hides books in tucked-away spots, on escalators, low ledges and benches, for other bleary-eyed commuters to take and enjoy for free. A distraction from hideous delays, or something to spark a smile, Gaggioli and her team of volunteer book fairies scatter about 15 books a week in every corner of the T network, from Mattapan to Malden. 

Books on the T is Boston’s chapter of the global Books on the Move campaign, which started in London in 2012. There are 20 similar branches across the world, in cities like New York, Chicago, Buenos Aires, Madrid and Delhi. 

Gaggioli recently sat down with the Scope to talk about why the book fairies started this campaign and what motivates them to continue the work. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

(Left to right) Catherine Gaggioli, Judy Gelman and Araceli Hintermeister founded Books on the T in Boston in 2017. Photo courtesy of Catherine Gaggioli.
(Left to right) Catherine Gaggioli, Judy Gelman and Araceli Hintermeister founded Books on the T in Boston in 2017. Photo courtesy of Catherine Gaggioli.

Q: How does Books on the T work?

A: We get all of our books from publishers and from the authors. [Judy] arranges all of that and then Araceli and I distribute the books to our book fairies who are the volunteers who drop the books. I do all the social media.

We also partner with organizations in Boston. Our biggest partner is the Boston Book Festival. They let all of their authors know that we exist and so we get a lot of the titles from the Boston Book Festival. We partner with 826 Boston, which is a writing program for youth in the city. Those books are always wonderful to drop because the voices in those books are really unique and it’s really wonderful. They cover such a wide range of topics, from cooking to immigration experiences to all kinds of stuff, so we really love dropping those books a lot.

We’ve built a good solid network of people who like to drop the books and we really focus on local authors, that’s how we kind of distinguish ourselves from Books on the Subway [in New York] or Books on the Underground [in London]. London and New York are major cities so they do really big books, big titles, and we do some of those but we really like to focus on local authors. We do more picture books, books for young adults, whereas the other cities tend to focus more on adult reading we try and cover everything, all the people of Boston.

Q: Does that include titles in other languages?

A: Yes. We don’t have as many bi-lingual titles as we’d like but we [drop them] whenever we can. We’ve dropped a few books in Spanish, we’ve dropped a few books in Chinese, but that is something that we’re constantly trying to get more of is bi-lingual titles. Those aren’t books that are published that much and it’s harder to get copies of them.

Books on the T volunteers try to drop as many picture books and bi-lingual reads as they can. Photo courtesy of their Facebook page.
Books on the T volunteers try to drop as many picture books and bi-lingual reads as they can. Photo courtesy of their Facebook page.

Q: Where does your drive for this come from?

A: I just really love books. I’ve always loved books, and I adore giving people books. I also really like Boston and I really like taking the T. I feel like putting books out there for people to find. I just hope it makes somebody’s day you know? That it’s like, “Oh a book that I can just take.” You don’t need to buy it, there’s no strings attached to it, you can just take it. I’ve found books that I never would have picked up and I’ve loved them and that’s what I want to give to everybody. It brings so many benefits, it brings literature to people, it brings excitement to the commute, it makes you look at your city in a different way and appreciate it in a different way.

As soon as I started dropping books I noticed so many more details about all of the T stations in Boston, little ledges and little nooks and crannies. I’ve gotten to the point now where I think I could identify 90 percent of the Boston’s T stations just from a picture of bricks.

Q: But aren’t people glued to their phones during their commute?

A: I would say in Boston 50 percent of people are reading books. This is the perfect city for it and I like it because it gets people to look up and look around. I hope the people who know that we’re out there aren’t like just hustling through the T station but they’re looking around and are like, “Oh, maybe I’ll find a book today.” 

Q: Are there any challenges dropping books?

A: We’re always afraid that the books are getting chucked, like thrown out. I’ve seen people pick up the book and then toss it and I’m like, “No, it’s a book just take it, or don’t take it if you don’t want it.” We also don’t want the books to cause any harm so we try not to put them on places where they’ll fall and cause danger.

Q: Do you know anything about the people picking up the books?

A: We’ve gotten a lot of people picking up the books who have long commutes, where they’re taking the commuter rail in and then taking the Red Line to get to work. They’ll find it on the Red Line and they’ll send us a picture of it out on the commuter rail because they took it all the way home. That’s what I want, because all of the book fairies have a limited network, we’re just kind of dropping them on our way to work and that’s a path you take the same way everyday, so it’s wonderful when people pick them up and spread them further.

Book fairies leave books in stations across Greater Boston. Photo courtesy of Books on the T's Facebook page.
Book fairies leave books in stations across Greater Boston. Photo courtesy of Books on the T’s Facebook page.

Q: How did it go negotiating with the MBTA when you first started Books on the T?

A: It was kind of good. There were a couple of hiccups where they were very concerned about the janitors having to clean them up, or [the books] being in places that would cause problems. We can’t use their logo on any of our stuff so we have a modified logo, but their communications person was really great to work with, so we figured it all out and made it all work.

Q: Do you have any plans for the future of Books on the T?

A: It seems to be working the way it is. We do want to partner with a couple of organizations that have contacted us [and] we want a bit more community feedback. We want to draw attention to more communities in Boston. We hope that the more people become aware of us the more books that we’ll get. I feel like we’ve really, in the last year or so, really cemented that we cover a wide range of audiences age-wise, interest-wise, so I feel like we’re going to keep doing that and we want to partner with more local communities.

Q: Is there anything about Books on the T that you think people should know?

A: We’re a bunch of Bostonians who really love books and who really want other people to enjoy reading the books that we drop. That’s really what it is. I think of it as a big Boston book club, that’s what I want. I want people to find the books and know that other people are finding them and reading them and just enjoy reading.