On Christmas morning when I was ten, I was seriously delighted when an inkpad and an adjustable-date rubber stamp tumbled from my Christmas stocking. Combining these two items with index cards and an old recipe-card box meant I had all I needed to play my favorite game: library. I meticulously wrote a card for each of my books, then forced my little sisters to act the role of library patrons and “check out” books, just so I could stamp a due date on the cards with a satisfying thump, alphabetize them, and squirrel them away in my card box. I was a happy camper, though I may have scarred my sisters for life — today we rarely discuss what we’re reading.
While my childhood fantasies of being a librarian never materialized, my love of libraries never waned. That’s why I was enchanted with Little Free Libraries, an idea started by Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, as a tribute to his mom, June A. Bol, a teacher. In 2009, he built a small schoolhouse-shaped structure, filled it with books, and mounted it on a pole.
Since that first structure bearing the sign “Take a book, return a book” appeared in Bol’s front yard, the number of Little Free Libraries has grown to more than 1,500. They can be found in more than 40 states and 20 countries. Bol and his friend Rick Brooks, co-founder of Little Free Libraries, hope to surpass the 2,509 libraries created by steel baron and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. (Of course, Carnegie’s libraries were all life-sized.)
While it’s possible through the Little Free Libraries website to buy finished libraries, as well as plans for creating the structures from new lumber and shingles, original designs and recycled materials are strongly encouraged. Many little libraries resemble large, fanciful birdfeeders; others conjure barns, canoes, or British phone booths and include fanciful touches like mosaics and murals. Most have a plexi-glass front door through which “patrons” can see the 20 to 50 books resting inside. They are water- and weather proof and bear the “Take a book, return a book” inscription Bol attached to his first structure.
When a new library “registers” with the Free Little Library organization, it gets an official number and is added to a Google map where patrons can search for nearby libraries, see photos and stories about each library, and find information about the library’s steward — the person who maintains the library and its collection. Stewards report little trouble with Little Free Libraries (as it says on the org’s website, “You can’t steal a free book”). They may occasionally replace a broken door, but most often they say the libraries have helped them get to know neighbors they’ve never met, when they stop to peruse the collection or donate a book.
That community connection is a main mission of the organization founded by Bol and Brooks. They also hope the libraries will promote literacy and a love of reading. Patrons seem to delight in donating favorite books, providing their neighbors with a chance to read (and potentially discuss) them. There’s also an opportunity for those who build the structures to come together: architects, scout troops, carpenters, and neighbors can share advice and information on design and construction through the Neighborhood Library Builders Facebook page.
The libraries benefit more than those in the neighborhood in which they’re built. With the success of Little Free Libraries, the founders created the GIFT (Give It Forward Team), which supports Little Free Libraries in communities that may not be able to afford one. Little Free Libraries also is a strong proponent of public library use — after all, you can only fit so much into a little library.
I know as a child I would have found these book-holding boxes magical (even if they didn’t provide the opportunity to stamp a due date in each volume). And maybe if my sisters and I could meet up at a Little Free Library, free of the requirement that they check out books just because I say so, we’d start talking books again. It’s worth a try.