Little Free Libraries are reinvigorating communities, one free book at a time
Several years ago, Rick Brooks’69 found himself asking this question: “How, particularly in this political climate, can we get people to talk to each other?” He knew others were grappling with the question, too.
He found the answer in books.
Specifically, books that people exchange free of charge, often with perfect strangers in the most unexpected places.
Brooks co-founded the phenomenon known as the “Little Free Library” as a way to get people talking to each other. And over the last three years, it’s done that and more, touching lives in ways he never imagined.
“We had no idea how profoundly this would inspire people to act on their yearning for a sense of community,” he says. “We sort of thought it was the books and the little structure—we didn’t realize what a yearning was out there. Most people get a kick out of sharing what they value. Everything doesn’t have to be a monetary exchange.”
These libraries are small, handcrafted, free-standing structures that provide a place where people can leave and take books on almost any topic and for all ages.
In 2009, co-founder Todd Bol built the first Little Library in memory of his mother, a teacher. Since he placed it in the front yard of his Hudson, Wis., home that same year, thousands of Little Free Libraries have sprouted up in the United States and across the globe.
Brooks’ organization has donated numerous Little Libraries and individuals or groups have either purchased or built them. And despite their diminutive size, these Little Free Libraries have spawned stories of epic proportion.
Brooks and Bol met through their mutual interest in sustainable communities. When Bol’s initial library, shaped like a one-room schoolhouse, attracted much more attention than he expected, he and Brooks decided to expand on the idea. They placed a second Little Free Library in Madison, Wis., off a major eastside bike path in the fall of 2009.
In choosing the location, which is flanked by community garden plots and a local business district, Brooks tapped Meghan Blake-Horst, gallery manager at Absolutely Art, a key business in Dane Buy Local, an alliance of 650 Madison-area independent businesses he co-founded in 2004.
“They came to me and told me their idea,” Blake-Horst says. “I loved it. That same day they asked if they could install one in my backyard at the store to show people. They also asked if I would join their advisory board. I love the literacy, art, sculpture, community combination of the Little Free Library program.”
Blake-Horst liked the idea so much she also installed a library in the front yard of her Madison home.
“We get so many visitors and folks that stop and look,” she says. “It is a great way to meet new people that would not have stopped and chatted with us normally. I have a chalk box next to my Little Free Library, and I often come home to ‘thank you’ notes or great drawings from visitors.”
Partnering for literacy
Bol initially built at least 30 early models of the libraries and was able to test a number of designs to determine what worked best for both outdoor and indoor use.
As demand for the libraries rose, Brooks and Bol needed to find a way to create more, faster. A fortuitous meeting brought Henry Miller into the picture. An Amish carpenter living in western Wisconsin, Miller has been the primary builder of the libraries sold through the Little Free Library program. His access to a large amount of wood from old barns means his work on the libraries also supports sustainability, which is important to both founders.
To spread the word about the libraries early on, the co-founders began giving them away. Wisconsin Literacy, a statewide coalition whose mission is to strengthen communities through literacy, was among the first recipients. It was no coincidence that Beloiter Michele Belvitch Erikson’84 is Wisconsin Literacy’s executive director. Erikson and Brooks knew each other through Beloit College, and Brooks saw an opportunity in their shared mission to support literacy.
Brooks and Bol met with Erikson and donated a Little Free Library to the organization. It was placed outside the group’s Madison office, also along a bike path. According to Erikson, it stays filled with books and has almost constant visitors.
She also helped introduce the Little Free Library concept to member organizations.
“We invited them to our state conference in October 2010,” Erikson says. “We have 63 literacy councils across the state of Wisconsin, and they’re all understaffed and underfunded. We wanted to figure out how these libraries could be a resource for our members that doesn’t require them to do any more work.”
At first, members were not sure what to think of what Erikson describes as “overgrown birdhouses,” but ultimately, the libraries have accomplished something unexpected.
“What’s so refreshing in the world of social media and screens is that people still want to hold a book in their hand and have something to talk about with their neighbors,” she says. “People get so much time in front of their screens. I didn’t think of it until we started to see how much people love them.”
Reaching out to Erikson at Wisconsin Literacy led to another fortuitous connection, this one with member organization Wisconsin Institutions Literacy Council (WILC), which trains prison inmates to tutor their peers in reading and writing English as a first or second language. WILC connected them with the Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution in Prairie du Chien, Wis., specifically its vocational woodworking program run by a nearby technical college. Building Little Free Libraries is now part of their curriculum, offering inmates the ability to give back to communities while learning carpentry skills. It also provides Brooks and Bol with more libraries they can donate to organizations that can’t afford to buy them.
“The prisoners are very proud of these,” Brooks says. “I hope it becomes part of rebuilding their own lives.”
At the Goodman Community Center in Madison, teens built a Little Free Library through the neighborhood center’s TEENworks—or Teen Education and Employment Network—program.
“We’re always looking for projects for students to work on that give back to the community,” says Keith Pollock, TEENworks manager. “Students had seen other Little Free Libraries in the community and wanted to add one at the center as a way to increase opportunities for literacy and community among the children and adults who visit.”
More than 13 students worked on the library over the course of four months, including designing, constructing, and acquiring the materials to build it.
Since the library was erected near the center in November 2011, Pollock has seen another benefit.
“The youth involved also bring books from home to share and have been taking books to read from the library,” he says. “In general these are students who are not actively involved in reading during the school day.”
Not just in my backyard
Part of the Little Free Library’s mission is “to build more than 2,510 libraries around the world,” which is more libraries than Andrew Carnegie built during his lifetime. It seems they are well on their way. To date, the organization has sent out about 4,000 official library signs in response to requests, and about 800 libraries have been registered through the Little Free Library program. They can be mapped on the organization’s website. Brooks says he hears about more every day and suspects there are many little libraries that the group doesn’t even know about.
Officially registered libraries are in 49 states right now, and in 32 countries, including China, Australia, Canada, and Mexico, among others. A touching letter came from the headmistress of a school in Ghana who wanted to build a full-sized library but didn’t have the funds. She came across the Little Free Library website and began communicating with Bol, who encouraged her to build one. She did, and as of October, there were 42 Little Libraries in Ghana and Nigeria thanks to what she started.
The Little Free Library movement has grown beyond the founders’ expectations in only three years. In fact, it’s a struggle to keep up with all the interest, Brooks says, but he’s not complaining.
To help keep the libraries affordable—or free, when necessary—Brooks and Bol established the Give it Forward Team or GIFT, which is supported by tax-deductible contributions and sponsors. Small grants also help with the work of their non-profit organization.
While so much has naturally transpired with the Little Free Libraries, Brooks believes the future possibilities are endless, and he welcomes new ideas and international partnerships.
“I am looking for people with a Beloit mindset,” he says. “We can reconnect with the good part of our culture. This is amazingly positive. It leads to other things.”
Brooks attributes his lifetime interest in civic engagement to an inspiring Sociology 100 course he took with author and activist Parker Palmer while attending Beloit College.
“His approach to civic engagement inspires me still,” he says.
Are you interested in a Little Free Library of your own? Go to www.littlefreelibrary.org to order a library, get tips on building your own, or make a tax-deductible donation.