It’s a Mailbox … It’s a Bird House … No, Wait, It’s a Library!
A simple idea to house free books in quirky little buildings on posts is bringing neighborhoods together and enhancing literacy around the world.
When Todd Bol placed a homemade wooden box on a pole in his front yard in Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2009, he had no idea it would launch a movement.
Decorated to resemble a one-room schoolhouse, it contained a dozen or more books free for the taking. The box was a tribute to Bol’s mother, a former teacher and book lover who had died several years earlier.
The small library literally stopped traffic.
“Everyone loved it! They stopped to look at it and said, ‘This is so cute; this is such a neat idea,’ ” recalls Rick Brooks.
Brooks knew the feeling. He loved the library the moment he heard about it. An instructor specializing in youth and community development at the UW- Madison Division of Continuing Studies, Brooks recognized the potential of the little house of books to promote literacy and to build community. A thin man with neatly cropped white hair and a nonstop smile, he had previously raised funds for village libraries in Sri Lanka and several other countries. Given his enthusiasm about neighborhood projects both professional and personal, Brooks jumped at the chance to put his passion into action.
“I’m always looking for manageable projects that connect people on a personal level to where they live,” says Brooks, who also co-founded Madison’s Community Food and Gardening Network and Dane Buy Local. “What’s better than books?”
Bol and Brooks joined forces to build several more of the eye-catching boxes. Calling their project the Little Free Library, they placed their first one beside a bike path behind Absolutely Art Gallery and Café Zoma on Madison’s east side. The spot proved ideal for spreading the word.
“Thousands of people saw it as they whizzed by on the path,” says Brooks.
People not only saw it. They wanted one of their own.
With a roof and plexiglass windows and doors, Little Free Libraries look like dollhouses for books. The concept is simple: take a book, leave a book. There are no due dates, late fees, or library cards required, and the doors are open every day of the week, twenty-four hours a day.
While some coffee shops and stores have offered book-exchange shelves for years, there’s something about the books inside a creative and self-contained box that inspires a completely different feeling of devotion among users.
“People support what they help to create,” says Brooks. “People have to want a library — and as soon as it comes and people bring their books, it’s theirs and they love it.”
At a time when digital technology is changing the way people find and consume words, it’s surprising how many people have fallen in love with such a low-tech, old-fashioned system of book circulation. As proof, you need only look at how quickly and in how many places these Little Free Libraries have found homes.
There are more than three thousand Little Free Libraries around the world, scattered in all fifty states and some thirty-two countries. And those are just the ones that Brooks and Bol know about. For every documented library, Brooks estimates there are anywhere from two to four that they don’t know about. The two were on a quest to break Andrew Carnegie’s record of funding 2,509 free libraries a century ago. But they surpassed that goal a year and half ahead of schedule.
In Accra, Ghana, elementary school headmistress Antoinette Ashong struggled to find a way to improve literacy among her students. She wanted a library at her school, but the cost of construction was prohibitive. One day, while searching the Internet for ideas, she discovered the Little Free Library. She contacted Brooks and Bol, and with their encouragement, Ashong built her first library in December 2011, filling it with books supplied by Accra’s Abraham Lincoln International School.
“In Ghana, it’s difficult to teach kids and to instill a love of reading without books,” Ashong says. “Most schools here have no libraries of their own.”
Ashong planned activities to build awareness of the new resource. Each weekday, for example, students gather around the miniature book repository as a teacher reads a work from its collection. She didn’t just stop at her own school, though. Ashong contacted other teachers in the area and started distributing libraries, including one to a friend in Nigeria. By spring 2012, Ashong had built nearly forty of the structures, with plans for more. “Everyone is reading every day because of the library. The children are so excited,” she says. “We can promote a love of reading in Africa through the Little Free Library.”
Shisir Khanal MIPA’05 hopes to do something similar in Asia. The executive director of Sarvodaya USA, an organization that facilitates grassroots community development, Khanal plans to bring some of the diminutive libraries to Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Khanal, who also founded Teach for Nepal, notes that four in ten adults in Nepal can’t read or write, but the country has seen a huge growth in school enrollment in recent years. “There’s much demand for knowledge and information,” he says. “But we have not been able to provide adequate resources to support education.” Khanal believes the little libraries can help fill that resources gap.
Closer to home, Lisa Lopez’s two Little Free Libraries at Zavala Elementary School in El Paso, Texas, have been a hit. One sits outside on a post in the playground, while the other travels from classroom to classroom each month. “It’s like a prize for them to get the library in their classroom, so the kids are really enthusiastic and excited,” she says. “[It’s] been a blessing, to say the least.”
For Lopez, the Little Free Libraries serve a different function than the school library. Kids can keep these books forever, which helps to promote literacy and reading at home.
“Libraries are facing more and more budget cuts, and this is one way to supplement access to books, especially for my low-income students,” she says. The boxes are always full, and Lopez has been gratified to see kids bringing and sharing favorites such as the ever-popular Harry Potter and Goosebumps books, rather than just the volumes they don’t like.
The libraries also have the potential to reach the elderly. AARP recently announced a two-year grant of $70,000 to install Little Free Libraries for low-income senior citizens who live alone, encouraging the recipients to read aloud to others or have friends read aloud to them.
The Lilliputian libraries come in all shapes, sizes, and materials. Bol found an Amish carpenter near Cashton, Wisconsin, who is willing to make them, often using recycled wood from barns blown down by tornadoes. Bol and Brooks also developed a library kit for purchase.
Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, high school students, and woodworkers have begun building libraries. Inmates at Wisconsin’s Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution are also building them as a way to contribute to their communities.
Many people prefer to design and build their own book depots, though. Some look like barns, houses, a classic red London phone booth, and even a canoe. They are made from cranberry crates, old newsstand boxes, and microwaves. In New Orleans, debris from Hurricane Katrina is going toward library construction. In short, there are no rules. Anything goes, as long as it holds books. The variety of styles is a big part of the project’s appeal and makes the libraries local tourist attractions.
What’s inside the libraries is a persistent question. Some specialize in children’s books or subjects such as gardening. Most are free form, though, attracting an eclectic mix of titles that can change completely from day to day.
The Wallace Stegner paperback spotted late one afternoon in the library across from Madison’s Essen Haus restaurant was gone by morning. In its place were three science fiction books, several worn romance novels, two Updike works, a dozen picture books, and a stack of comics. “Take a book; return a book” may be the program’s motto, but users should be advised to take their selections when they can, because they may not be there tomorrow.
The libraries are mapped on Google so users can find them easily. Some owners have set up Facebook pages and blogs to promote their biblio-boxes and to connect to other “librarians.” The bond of library ownership is so great that some of them even plan their vacations so that they can visit all the other Little Free Libraries en route to their destinations.
The strong sense of connection that has formed around the charming structures has both surprised and delighted Brooks.
“We suspected — and hoped — that community would form in caring for these libraries, but we had no idea that the visual and emotional appeal of a little box of books would be as strong as it is,” explains Brooks. “It’s what you hope for, but can never predict.”
Gabrielle Ratte Smith MA’92 helped place a Little Free Library at the Amtrak Station in Essex Junction, Vermont. Its location at a railroad station inspired the library’s design, an homage to Dr. Seuss’s beloved title, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
“It’s been such a fun project, both to design and to see how excited everyone is about it,” she says. “We all have a stake in our communities, but I think it can be hard for people to figure out how to get involved. Books are an entry point for people to start a conversation about who we are and who we want to be.”
Jennifer Hoffman’s Little Free Library has become a focal point of her neighborhood in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
“I love the idea of this little gathering area on my front lawn where people can come by, browse, take a book if they’d like, leave a book, and just enjoy,” she says.
The idea of books in a box isn’t new. More than a century ago, Wisconsin’s Lutie Stearns took thousands of volumes to isolated Wisconsin communities. Although many cities had libraries by the end of the nineteenth century, most farm families had little, if any, access to books. To remedy the problem, the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, led by Stearns, decided to take the written word to rural areas. By the time Stearns left the commission in 1914, she’d established 1,400 traveling libraries — actually just boxes of reading matter — that she often delivered herself, traveling first by horse and buggy, and later by automobile.
Brooks calls Stearns his hero, and a portion of the Little Free Library website is dedicated to her story.
Stearns’s mission to take books to underserved areas has remained a remarkably potent factor in the spread of Little Free Libraries. Many communities that have lost their library — or never had one — have enthusiastically embraced the project. Ten miles from the nearest bricks-and-mortar library, the small town of Boaz, Wisconsin, recently got its first Little Free Library. It’s not a replacement for a public library, says Brooks, but it’s a good way to “get people in the book habit and to feed a love of reading.”
Requests for new libraries come in daily. For those who can’t afford to build their own, Brooks and Bol have established a Give It Forward Team (G.I.F.T.) initiative to fund libraries worldwide. The libraries are also the subject of two short documentaries. “A Small Wooden Box,” was created by Minnesota producer Gwen Briesemeister, and Madison’s Marc Kornblatt has produced “The Little Library on the Corner.” Both have been entered in film festivals across the country. For information on showings, see www.littlefreelibrary.org.
Brooks has been gratified, if a little overwhelmed, by the response to this simple and quirky concept.
“Our short-term dream is to get in a car and pull a wagon full of libraries from small town to small town throughout the summer,” he says. “We’ll have a potluck, tell stories, install a library, and hit the road for the next town.”
Erika Janik MA’04, MA’06 is constantly checking the Little Free Library for a copy of Elizabeth Irvin Ross’s How to Write While You Sleep.
Published in the Winter 2012 issue