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Little Free Libraries Are A Good Idea That’s Taken On New Meaning Now

The first time Margret Aldrich saw a Little Free Library she didn’t know what to think.

“I think I saw my first one back in 2010, 2011. And I’m a book person, my background is in publishing, so I immediately loved it. But, probably being Midwestern, I was like, ‘Is it really okay to take a book? Is this really free?’”

She’s not alone in that reaction. So much of our lives involves trading money for goods and services it’s disarming to encounter an unattended box — sometimes plainly decorated, sometimes whimsically designed — that simply gives away value items asking only that anyone taking a book also consider leaving a book. (If it’s convenient. No big deal if not. Please enjoy your book.) The idea takes some getting used to. But with 100,000 Little Free Libraries now spread around the globe, it’s starting to seem less shocking — and this year has made it seem more welcome than ever.

Aldrich was immediately drawn to the project. She wrote a book about it published in 2015 and joined the non-profit Little Free Library organization as its director of communications in 2016. By then, an idea that had begun in a garage in Hudson, WI — a small, riverside city not far from Minneapolis — had long since outgrown its humble origins, which can be traced back to a handful of wood from an old door.

A teacher who later shifted into arranging nursing fellowships, Todd Bol built the first Little Free Library in 2009. It was almost an afterthought, an attempt to pay tribute to his late mother, a teacher and avid reader, using materials left over from a home renovation project. Bol built a small box in the shape of a one-room schoolhouse and placed it atop a post. And that might have been the end of it. Except, the idea caught on.

With the help of Rick Brooks, outreach program manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Little Free Libraries started to spread. A second Little Free Library placed on a Madison bike trail led to others, and the Little Free Library began issuing charters to keep track of what libraries existed where. Beyond that, they kept the project simple, and easily replicable: a weather-proof box with a hinged door, some books, and a spirit of sharing and goodwill. Positive press inspired more libraries and the project spread beyond the Midwest, quickly surpassing the organization’s goal of outnumbering the 2508 libraries opened by Andrew Carnegie in the early years of the 20th century.

The project has outlived Bol, who died in 2018. It’s also run into some problems here and there, from occasional acts of vandalism, to permit issues to a trademark dispute involving other members of the Bol family. But the fundamental idea has prevailed, thanks to enthusiasts like Grant and Ashlyn, who serve as stewards (the organization’s preferred term) of a Little Free Library in Mid-City Los Angeles.

“As the daughter of a librarian, I’ve been kind of obsessed with Little Free Libraries for a long time,” Ashlyn says. “The idea of having your own place to help give books to others just seemed like the dream. I wondered if our neighborhood had enough foot traffic to justify it, but when the opportunity presented itself, we set it up and I was honestly so pleasantly surprised! We wish we’d done it sooner.”

Setting up a Little Free Library is just the beginning of a steward’s job. “I think it’s important that the Little Free Library is a source of recommended titles, as opposed to a dump pile of unwanted books,” Grant adds. “That can be a challenging ideal to live up to because it means you literally have to get rid of some of your favorite books! But it’s also a great way to pass things forward. We take the ‘curator’ role seriously. Whether it’s our addition or not, if something’s been in there for two weeks, we pull it and replace it with something else.”

Grant and Ashlyn try to maintain a diverse selection of titles, aiming for a mix of “kids books, YA, comics, non-fiction, genre fiction, self-help, memoir, and so on.” Of course, what gets dropped off remains beyond their control. The first book someone donated, From Scrawny to Brawny, got the hook after two weeks of sitting there without a taker and, as Grant notes, “There have been a few more kids’ books about the dogs who served in the Iraq War than we expected.”

The Little Free Library served as a welcome pandemic project for the couple, as it has for British artist and filmmaker Jeanie Finlay, who found herself stuck in her Nottingham home after spending 2017 and 2018 making the acclaimed documentaries Seahorse and Game of Thrones: The Last Watch then much of 2019 touring with her work. She sees her Little Free Library as an extension of the spirit of support and sharing necessitated by the pandemic. “There was a lot of sharing of plants, tools, food, etc.,” Finlay says via email. “People would leave things on their wall so they could be shared in a covid safe way. It got me thinking that it would be good to have a place for sharing books.”

To do so, she started from scratch. “I am a newcomer to carpentry but I thought I’d give it a go — making the library out of reclaimed wood and donated materials,” she writes. “I learned how to make it, designed and printed signage, created bookplates, and set up social media. I decided to launch on my birthday in August, my gift to the community.” That social media element is no small part of the project; Finlay regularly updates her library’s Instagram and Twitter accounts to shine a light on new arrivals and titles of particular interest. The library has also introduced her to some new acquaintances. “I was woken up a few weeks ago by one of the bin men,” she recalls. “His colleague had borrowed a book the week before so he’d brought me a bag full of crime novels to put on the shelves.”

Finlay’s not alone in using a Little Free Library as a way to foster community spirit in the midst of the pandemic. “This year of course is a year like no other,” Aldrich says, “We’ve really seen little free libraries both being established faster. And we’re hearing from [our stewards] their libraries are getting visited more than ever. More books are coming and going out of their Little Free Libraries.” The organization has found other ways to respond to the events of 2020 as well. Little Free Library’s Read In Color encourages the reading of diverse books by asking stewards to share books by Black, indigenous, people of color, and LGBTQ writers and by supplying some free books that fit that description free of charge.

Whether growth will continue at this pace post-pandemic remains to be seen. But then unpredictability is hardwired into the project itself. It’s flourished thanks to both stewards and visitors seeing the value in sharing books with no strings attached. And from there it’s taken on different permutations depending on each neighborhood and the stewards in charge. “Our goal with the little free library is to make sure that people who walk by always see something new,” Ashlyn says. (They’ve gotten good feedback, including a note reading, “Most Little Free Libraries have a garbage selection but this one is great!”) But the libraries also have a way of taking on a life of their own.

“One night, I noticed a strange light near the library at 11:30 p.m. one night and realized it was two very drunk women, with a torch, giggling and browsing the titles,” Finlay recalls. But she also feels like that’s as it should be. “It’s similar to when a film I’ve made is released: it’s not mine anymore. The library is now owned by the community. I am just a librarian.”

Update: the trademark dispute involves multiple members of the Bol family.

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