Take a book, return a book. Such a simple idea that sparked a world-wide phenomenon. Maybe you’ve seen the small boxes filled with books called Little Free Libraries around your city or neighborhood – they many times look like mini houses. These community created extensions of the public library serve to expand literacy and give children and adults with limited access to books more opportunities to read. Not only do they accomplish that, but they spread joy and spark curiosity whenever they are found unexpectedly by passersby.
In 2009, Todd Bol set out a small model of a one-room schoolhouse with a sign that read “Free Books” in his front yard in Hudson, Wisconsin as a dedication to his mother who was a teacher and avid reader. After giving a few more away to friends and family who adored his idea, Todd and his friend Rick Brooks set a goal for themselves. Inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s goal of funding 2,508 public libraries, Todd and Rick wanted to create more than 2,508 Little Free Libraries by 2013. In 2018 there were over 75,000 registered Little Free Libraries in 85 countries, speaking volumes of their popularity and the interest of people everywhere doing their part to serve the common good.
As I wrote above, I view Little Free Library as a community created extension of the public library. People with a genuine love of reading and books are choosing, out of their own volition, create vehicles of literacy that anyone from anywhere can access at any time of the day. This is both admirable and inspiring, as many visitors go home and plan to build their own box of books to share. Promoting literacy is not the only goal of Little Free Libraries, either. In The Little Free Library Book: Take a Book, Return a Book by Margaret Aldrich, she explains that they:
- Bring people together.
“The benefits of a Little Library can come from the anodyne interactions on the sidewalk that help build friendships and trust, as well as from larger community-building efforts. A neighborhood that gets together for a grand opening party at a new Little Free Library, for example, feels the positive effects of good company and strengthened community ties. A group that meets to build Little Libraries for places where books are scarce gets to know each other and feels a larger, human connection to other parts of the world. By its nature, a Little Free Library is a kind of collectivizer. It gathers people to create it, to participate in it, and to share in it, and it reminds us that we can be better together.”
- Are people-sized.
I love this characteristic Aldrich brings up. “Little Free Library isn’t daunting. And it isn’t powered by money or gasoline or contributions – it’s powered by books. I think most people have books that they’ve read and are willing to share with others or give away. So the fuel that runs the effort is free; it doesn’t require lots of outside resources.” Little Free Libraries are not only physically people-sized, but metaphorically as well – meaning it doesn’t take a huge effort to create. “Because the necessary resources – time, materials, and commitment – don’t prohibit anyone from participating, and because a Little Library’s door is open to everyone, the Little Free Library phenomenon feels wonderfully inclusive. If it’s a people-sized movement, it’s one size fits all, in the best possible way.”
- Are instruments of self-expression.
“There are no rules when it comes to what Little Free Libraries look like. The majority are around two feet by two feet square and resemble a miniature house with a gently pitched roof. But this basic form is only a suggestion. Many Little Free Library designers, artists, and architects – both trained and self-taught – deviate from it to create inspired, unique Libraries.” Little Free Libraries can be anything, just like books can be anything! What a liberating and exciting experience to create a piece of art in the form of a mini public library in whatever personalized way you want, and then have it displayed publicly with an intention of use and interaction by others.
- Push you out of your reading comfort zone.
This particular characteristic is not in Aldrich’s book, as I came up with it myself. The limited selection of books that Little Free Libraries offer forces any potential reader to pick out something that they normally would not read. While everyone has the option of forgoing actually taking a book, I believe it can be a good exercise of the mind to read something outside of our comfort zones. While in my personal experience, I stayed far away from the Russian sex book (keep reading/see below), I did end up selecting a novel that I never would’ve picked up had it not been one of my only choices. I encourage everyone that comes across a Little Free Library to take a chance and take home a book you never thought you’d be reading. Who knows, maybe you’ll end up liking it!
I remember the first time I came across a Little Free Library by chance, in the wild. I was driving through a part of Grand Rapids, Michigan that I didn’t know very well. Unfortunately I was known for often getting lost around town during my college years, so I had no idea where I was and not the slightest idea if I was headed the right way. I noticed this incredibly cute corner that had a walkway leading to a Little Free Library and a bench, surrounded by a garden. I slammed my car in reverse to make a pit stop.
I marveled at the idea that there was a cute house of books just sitting there, unattended and unlocked, on the side of the road. What I found inside was an unlikely mix of old cookbooks, a book about sex written in Russian, a few kids books, and some novels – not the greatest selection, but not the worst. I picked a novel (I can’t for the life of me remember the name of it) from the bunch and drove away from my newest favorite corner in Grand Rapids, as happy as a clam.
As you can see, Little Free Library is a great way to involve the community in raising literacy rates and expanding access to books, but also so much more. They bring the community together, are people-sized, act as instruments of self-expression, and push you out of your reading comfort zone. To me, the most important thing that Little Free Libraries accomplish, is simply bringing instant joy to patrons whenever they happen upon one. It’s comforting to know that people all over the world are using their own resources to spread this novel idea for the benefit of the greater good. So next time you take a book, make sure to return one, so we can keep the Little Free Library alive and thriving!
To find out more about Little Free Libraries, you can visit their website: https://littlefreelibrary.org/. Or you can check out The Little Free Library Book: Take a Book, Return a Book by Margret Aldrich at your local library.