Library Books for Homebound Readers

New York City Public Libraries’ Mail-a-Book and Books by Mail programs send books, videos and audio books free to homebound readers, caretakers and children in every city borough.

By Susan Shafer


library books homebound

Mary Higgins Clark fans, take note: Mail-a-Book has just sent a new Clark mystery to your mailbox. No fee for the postage!!

Hey, admirers of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, open that package! Inside is RGB’s biography sent to you at no cost!

Mail-a-Book, a program sponsored by The Queens Library, has for years sent books, videos, and audio books gratis to homebound readers who live in Queens and can’t shop at a library on their own. Now funded by grants, Mail-a-Book reaches homebound readers throughout New York State.

“Anyone at home who can’t get to a library should be able to get everything that others get when they walk into a library—programming, materials, information, socialization and learning opportunities,” says program manager Madlyn Schneider.

So how do you sign up for the Mail-a-Book program? After registering by phone (718-464-0084) or by written application, you confer with a librarian, indicating specific titles you may wish or books that cover your favorite interests, ranging from mysteries and history to cooking. Your librarian will then select books in the category you request. A library card is not necessary.

Books are then mailed—two books per bag—with a prepaid return mailbag. Readers may keep the books for 45 days, then return them to the library in a canvas bag. You may renew your books up to three times. There are now between 700 and 800 Mail-a-Book members who request new books from a librarian and also get advice.

Clearly, one perk of the Mail-a-Book program is the socializing that occurs when librarians and customers talk on the phone about books. Since many readers are homebound and have limited opportunities to interact with others, even short phone conversations provide connection.


Mail-a-Book also interacts with members in other ways, such as teleconferencing sessions to a group of readers on a variety of topics. Just call 877-950-2020, a toll-free phone number, and enter a passcode to participate. A librarian begins the talk with an initial question; then members exchange viewpoints and informal book reviews take off. Book talks provide stimulating interactions and friendships often occur.

“Mail-a-Book manages other teleconferencing sessions over the course of a month, such as art discussions, guest speakers (a nurse, for example), general group chats and even Trivial Pursuit and Bingo,” says librarian Willie Simmons. A newsletter with dates and times for sessions is often included inside the bag of books you order.

Children of all ages—whether sick at home temporarily or disabled permanently—also receive books. Just imagine the joy these children experience when a picture book such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar or an engrossing story such as Dear Mr. Henshaw arrive in the mail.

I first heard about Mail-a-Book through a case manager for my elderly husband, who I’ll call Hank. Thrilled about the program’s possibilities, I phoned the Queens Library’s special number and expressed Hank’s interest. The next day a librarian called to register him, requesting that I identify my husband’s disability and explaining how the program works. Hank was also invited to speak to the librarian to verify his interest.

Registration nearly complete, librarian Willie Simmons and I then reviewed the subjects my husband likes to read (nonfiction, including artificial intelligence, evolution and histories of the Lower East Side) and Simmons took notes.

Happy with the prospect of a service that my husband would enjoy, I then thought of my own reading needs. “Can the package consist of some books for my homebound husband and others for me, his 72-year-old, mobile, bookaholic wife?” The answer? “Yes, of course.”

“In that case,” I said, “I’d like to receive two novels by Rachel Joyce. Since I loved the Music Shop and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, please send Perfect and The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.” (In The Music Shop, the owner of a music store solves customers’ personal problems by providing music tailored to their needs. And in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a shy man with a shaky marriage gains respect when he joins a walking trip to save a former colleague.)


Since mine were “special requests” I was aware there may be a delay in receiving them, as books may be sent to the Queens Village library from other Queens branches. But within a few days, two bags carrying four books arrived. Hank and I put aside our iPads and opened the bags.

Inside were Oliver Sacks’ The River of Consciousness, Arlene Alda’s Just Kids from the Bronx, editor Don Nardo’s Evolution and James Trager’s The New York Chronology: The Ultimate Compendium of Events, People and Anecdotes from the Dutch to the Present, Hanks favorite. “Let’s see what happened in New York in the years we were born,” said Hank, browsing happily through The New York Chronology. Then Hank quizzed me about events in New York in 1932 —Hank’s birthday year—and 1946—mine.

“Question 1,” began Hank. “In 1932, which train line opened, extending service into areas not covered by the BMT and IRT and designated trains by letters, not numbers?” he asked. (Answer? IND, or Independent)

“Question 2,” continued Hank. “In 1946, which beautician in Corona, Queens, made her first sale of face creams to Saks Fifth Avenue?” (Answer? Estée Lauder)

The New York Chronology—all 934 pages—provided endless fun for us native New Yorkers.

A few days later I consulted the Mail-a-Book calendar and joined two hour-long discussions by phone. In the first, a moderator read aloud some Aesop’s Fables and the group—about seven of us—suggested an appropriate moral of the story, drawing parallels from the animal characters to people and situations we encounter in our lives today.

In the second discussion, participants summarized books they were reading and, in certain cases, read aloud from these books to illustrate the author’s gifted use of prose. Books mentioned were Kristen Hannah’s The Nightingale and Homefront, Nell Scovell’s Just the Funny Parts, Susan Wittig Albert’s The Darling Dahlias and the Unlucky Clover (part of a series), and Rachel Joyce’s The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.


A similar program to Mail-a-Book is run by the New York Public Library. Books By Mail is a free service that sends books and other library materials to “people of all ages” who are homebound and reside in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island.

To join, potential members download an application (available in English and Spanish) which can be found under “Accessibility” on the New York Public Library website ( You will need to provide your name and address and your library card number. (If you don’t have one, you can apply for a Homebound Library Card.)

Book lovers will enjoy filling out the Reader Profile page, where you’ll indicate your general or specific reading preferences.

The application for Books by Mail also requires the signature of a health or social service professional (a doctor, nurse, or social worker) that confirms your inability to leave home (whether temporary or permanent). Send the completed application to: ASK NYPL, Attention: Books by Mail Registration, 11 West 40 Street, New York, NY 10018

Questions? Call 917-ASK-NYPL (917-275-6975) or TTY 212-930-0020 for more information.

Also, the Brooklyn Public Library’s Services for Older Adults offers Books by Mail. 718-236-1760 or mail the application.

But keep in mind: Whether you qualify for Mail-a-Book, Books by Mail, or both, your favorite books may be headed your way!

. . . . . . . . . . . .
Queens Library Mail-a-Book Service 718-464-0084, will send to homebound readers anywhere in New York State.
New York Public Library Books by Mail 917-275-6975, covers the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island.
Brooklyn Public Library Books by Mail 718-236-1760, sends to homebound readers in Brooklyn.
Library Homebound Services in Westchester County, for specific libraries’ phone numbers.
. . . . . . . . . . . .

Susan Shafer, a former teacher and editor, has a doctorate from Columbia University’s Teachers College. She now works nearly full-time as a playwright.

You may also enjoy these stories by Susan Shafer:

On Stage: Women in History Come Alive
Wedding Bells at 70

And by Sally Wendkos Olds for

Private Libraries in New York City

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