It’s a Mailbox … It’s a Bird House … No, Wait, It’s a Library!

girls at the little 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.

books & bol

Rick Brooks, above left, and Todd Bol show off a new library outside of Madison’s Neighborhood House.

“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?”

photo

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.

phone booth

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.

Tags: Alumni, Humanities, International, Libraries, Public service

31 comments

  1. I'm a mailman in Green Bay and saw at least 2 of these while delivering. I've been curious about them for awhile now. Love the idea, enjoyed the article and now I know! :)

    Travis Wiltzius
  2. [...] The Little Free Library project is the subject of my latest piece in the current issue of On Wisconsin. It’s an inspiring project that has taken the world by storm. There’s at least one on [...]

    Little Free Libraries | Erika Janik
  3. I grew up in Madison. So excited to see this article. There is a Little Free Library here in West Chester, PA on a main street with heavy foot traffic. I think I'll put in an old Hardy Boys mystery.

    Ginger Gathings
  4. Fantastic! I'd like to know more about the G.I.F.T. program, please, and I'll check the website for showings of the documentaries.

    Terry Goss
  5. We have quite a few nearby where I live. I worked for the St. Paul Public Library for 30 years. What a wonderful way to have reading easily available in our neighborhoods!

    Bonnie Iverson
  6. I am an MBA'69 grad and also a municipal Councillor in Georgian Bay twp, District of Muskoka, Ontario- 100 miles north of Toronto. This program is very interesting and I would appreciate any additional information you might be able to send re the operational side of this program.

    Tx

    Pat Edwards

    Pat Edwards
  7. How well do these libraries work in tropical/subtropical countries (Mexico)? Books available to circulate? We lived in the Yucatan. Books were scarce. We also lived and worked in the Sonoran desert area where moisture would not have been a problem, but library facilities for the ejidos were scarce. I love the idea! Ralph

    Ralph Martens
  8. [...] gifts. The idea I want to share is a project called The Little Free Library Movement. As “On Wisconsin Magazine” reports: With a roof and plexiglass windows and doors, Little Free Libraries look like [...]

    Merry Christmas 2013 – Meaningful Gift Exchange « Rhapsody in Books Weblog
  9. Oh my word! I am so intrigued by this project and have a million ideas/locations racing around my head right now! Thank you for starting a lovely program that supports literacy, creativity, and community!

    Dena Davis
  10. My 16 year old grandaughter, Colette who lives in Manhattan Beach, California, just put up her LITTLE FREE LIBRARY. It was a joint family effort with every ones input, down to the finishing 'ivy' painted by her younger sister,thirteen year old Samantha.
    She tells me 'business' is booming.
    I just picked up 5 used books that are offered for taking at our local library.
    I also gave her the first book for her library. It was called
    "The Book Thief".

    barbara bass grubman
  11. I think the Lttle Libraries are a really great idea! Not everyone has as nice a community library as we do,nor as close. This is a little serendipity to be enjoyed and almost everyone has a book they have read that could be left for someone else to enjoy! It is exciting!

    Barbara Hughes
  12. I am a 1968 graduate of the Library School. Wouldn't it be a terrific idea if every librarian put a little library in their front yard or on their corner? We could paint them red and white.

    Kathleen Tostrud Imhoff
  13. [...] Nov 11, 2012 [...]

    It’s a Mailbox … It’s a Bird House … No, Wait, It’s a Library! « On Wisconsin
  14. When one was put in at my bus stop next to the Central Wisconsin Center, I started taking a photo of it's contents each week. I compiled the results into a spreadsheet, as well (no, it did not take long, and I do have a life). Over a year now, and it's fascinating to see the ebb and flow, the long-timers and the ephemerals, and occasionally, the repeat offenders.

    Math Heinzel
  15. I taught storytelling at the U of W library school in Madison a couple of summers back in the eighties. This looks like a great project.
    Here in Berkeley CA some people just put unwanted books and magazines out on the curb in cardboard boxes. Not as cute, and wouldn't work in a rainier clime, but I've picked up some good stuff, and passed on some when I didn't feel like taking a bag up to the real library for their book sale.

    Nancy Schimmel
  16. In principle, I like the idea of LFLs a lot, but I have concerns - will this fad die away? If/when it does, and the LFL falls into disrepair who will repair it or dispose of it? Also, are there codes issues to think about before erecting these?

    Great article. Thanks!

    Mark
  17. I visited Madison, WI over Christmas. While walking in my daughter's neighborhood we came across a LFL. It was great fun!

    Mary Kirk
  18. What a great idea! Love it. Rhode Island Library staff.

    Judy Mitchell
  19. After reading an article about the Neighborhood Library Mailboxes, I was DETERMINED to have one. I couldn't afford one of the ones you could buy, so I bought a used handmade entertainment center. My husband painted it beautifully, and I added library books on a shelf borders. We love it! We live it on a circle, and have many walkers. We have high hopes that it gets lots of use. It holds about 50 books! We live in Janesville, WI.

    Judy Vaughn
  20. Interested in purchasing the little free library books mailbox. Price please and can it be shipped for a gift.

    Sharon Hughes
  21. We are a group of women belonging to a wonderful church in an inner-city community. We are interested in placing a LFL on our church campus. Understandably our Parish Council is not convinced that it will serve its true function. Do any of you have knowledge of a LFL in an environment such as this, and end result of this placement? Any information or assistance anyone can provide would be so very gratefully received. Happy reading, Sandy & LFL believersi

    Sandy Agne
  22. […] http://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/its-a-mailbox-its-a-bird-house-no-wait-its-a-library/ […]

    Mailbox libraries | Librarianship in the 21st century
  23. I live in Anchorage Alaska and I have never heard of The Little free Library. This is such a wonderful and exciting creative idea. my mind started to travel back when I was a child in Central America and all did was read because there was no TV or other forms of "Social Media" to say the least.
    I know that there are places in Alaska that it might not be too far fetched to say they live like a third world country.

    My interest is sparked, especially when I saw the beautiful creative boxes some of the people built and the way it connects people in their communities. Mr Bol, you are so brilliant, it only takes one person, one idea...just do it.

    Thank you

    ALICIA POLLARD
  24. I live in Kodiak, Alaska, about 20 minutes out of town on a good day. I would love to put a LFL or two or 10 in my neighborhood! There are all kinds of walking trails here too, boat harbors, etc. Lots of opportunity!

    Nicole
  25. I really glad that grafton camp is making so little library's for this project. My husband is the one in the toy shop that is making sure they are done right. He loves making things for the kids. The kids that have nothing. Donating his time for the childern. I'm glad that he can do it for them. He's so glad that he can put a smile on a childs face and make there day. Thank you all. Sue.

    sue liuzzo
  26. I live in maple hts ohio.

    sue liuzzo
  27. I'm taking a leadership class . Where we develop skills to do a project. One person suggested a neighborhood, mini library . So I came home and found this site. Even if this project is not picked, I'll be still making one or two. This is so cool.

    Kurt Blachnik
  28. Does anyone have a blueprint that our Boy Scouts can follow for construction of an effective box ?

    Gary pascale
  29. You can find the blueprints here:
    http://littlefreelibrary.org/

    Libraryguy
  30. […]  found HERE […]

    For the Love of Reading | Where the Story is Told
  31. Love this idea and am going to have my husband make one. We have so many books to share. Enjoyed reading this and especially seeing Cashton, WI mentioned. My parents are from there and it's a beautiful part of Wisconsin.

    Pam Outhouse

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