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The Mighty Reach of Little Free Libraries
by
Posted On September 19, 2023
The Little Free Library organization, headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota, aims “to be a catalyst for building community, inspiring readers, and expanding book access for all through a global network of volunteer-led Little Free Library book-exchange boxes.”

In simple terms, Little Free Libraries are free community book-exchange shelters. Generally, book boxes are homemade and the size of a household cabinet. Often, these weather-tight structures are personalized with charming touches and have a fun, approachable appearance. Volunteers install the libraries in places where passersby can browse, take a book, and perhaps add a book to the shelves on a return visit. There are no library cards or due dates, and, generally, these libraries are open 24/7.

The Little Free Library organization maintains registries of these book outposts, collectively promotes the program, fundraises, and provides broad programmatic leadership.

History

In 2009, Todd Bol erected what became the first Little Free Library on his front lawn in Hudson, Wisconsin, to honor his late mother, an avid bookworm and longtime school teacher. Subsequently, he and his partner Rick Brooks built additional book houses in other areas in the Midwest. The idea spread, and Little Free Library incorporated as an official nonprofit organization in 2012.

Bol’s aim was the creation of 2,510 book shelters, which would exceed the number of libraries funded by historic philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Bol’s dream became a movement. By 2016, Little Free Libraries made it overseas and rapidly became a grassroots community staple. Bol passed away in 2018, but his legacy endures and continues to expand. Today, there are more than 150,000 Little Free Libraries in 120 countries, with circulation topping 300 million books. Little Free Libraries are nearly universal, and, thanks to industrious volunteer stewards, can even be found on Mt. Fuji and in Antarctica.

Mission

Citing literacy statistics and springing from an earnest desire to share the joys of reading, the Little Free Library program is committed to personal enrichment and social betterment through equitable access to books. Reaching audiences one reader at a time, the organization relies on collaboration with community partners and volunteers around the globe to bring free books to local communities. Through its work, Little Free Libraries empower communities by engaging individuals in reading, improving literacy, and promoting social understanding.

Interested in Visiting a Little Free Library?

Many people happen upon a Little Free Library while walking around their community, but the Little Free Library organization oversees a global map that helps readers pinpoint book-exchange boxes by location. The map is available online and on the Little Free Library mobile app, downloadable from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. The app provides directions to Little Free Libraries and saves favorite locations. Additionally, Little Free Library stewards can edit the details of their library’s listing in the app in real time.

Want to Start a Little Free Library?

Individuals, families, schools, public libraries, civic organizations, and even businesses can launch and run a Little Free Library. The first step is to identify a location for a book box. The Little Free Library organization points out that boxes are best located in areas with high visibility and foot traffic, and they must be placed in locations that are safe and legal.

The next step is to get a book box. Stewards can construct boxes themselves, build them at box-making events, or purchase them online through the Little Free Library store or other retailers. Little Free Library offers free box-building plans online for its Modern Two Story Little Free Library and its Cedar Roof Basic Little Free Library, as well as plans on how to upcycle a kitchen cabinet into a Little Free Library. Many people have shared DIY videos on YouTube, and HGTV posted a 2-minute instructional video on Facebook to help people build libraries.

After stewards install their boxes, they can complete Little Free Library’s online registration form and purchase an official charter sign for their box. The organization charges a one-time $40 registration fee. (Charter signs and registration are included with boxes purchased from the Little Free Library store.) Once registered, stewards can set up their Little Free Library account and list their library on the organization’s global map.

The Little Free Library organization encourages stewards to promote their libraries via press releases, social media, and local outreach events. Suggested ideas include holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony, inviting neighbors to snack-filled get-togethers, cross-promoting their library with local public libraries, and contacting area newspapers and TV and radio outlets with press releases.

Little Free Library’s Steward Book Directory lists many opportunities for volunteers to request free books to stock their libraries. They can filter books by reader age, new or used books, book genre, and whether books are available for pickup or by mail. Additionally, the Little Free Library organization hosts many special programs to help stewards reach targeted audiences and get books in the hands of readers.

Special Programs

The following are Little Free Library programs that the organization highlights on its site.

Read in Color

In 2020, Little Free Library developed the Read in Color program in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder to increase multicultural representation through community book sharing in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. In a few short years, the program has expanded into 14 cities nationwide, and more than 200 Little Free Libraries have shared 40,000-plus diverse books. The program continues to expand to high-need communities across the U.S.

Built on the commitment that “everyone should be able to see themselves in the pages of a book,” the Read in Color program aims to improve communities and support diverse voices by sharing diverse books and promoting awareness of the importance of equitable representation for all readers. Little Free Library’s Diverse Books Advisory Group shares a list of books for all ages that present various perspectives on social justice and race, as well as books that represent Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Muslim, Asian American, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized communities. The program’s goal “is to provide a robust selection of diverse books to every steward who wishes to participate. Together, we will work toward a more unified, empathetic, and understanding community.”

Program supporters fund the free shipment of diverse books to Little Free Libraries that participate in the Read in Color program. Whenever possible, those materials are purchased from BIPOC-owned and independently owned bookstores.

Indigenous Library Program

In many tribal communities, access to books is challenging, and not all communities have public libraries. Little Free Library’s Indigenous Library Program provides no-cost book-sharing boxes to tribal communities in the U.S. and Canada. The program aims to inspire readers, expand book access, boost literacy outcomes, and strengthen community ties. Individuals and organizations working with Indigenous communities can complete an application to receive an installation kit and complimentary set of starter books.

Impact Library Program

Through its targeted Impact Library Program, the Little Free Library organization provides no-cost book-sharing boxes to any community where book access is limited. The straightforward goal of this program is to deliver easy access to reading materials to improve literacy rates in communities.

Individuals or organizations wanting to bring a Little Free Library to a community that lacks traditional library services can apply for the Impact Library Program. Applications are reviewed monthly. The Little Free Library organization asks that stewards maintain the Little Free Library for a minimum of a year, hold at least one community event, share a photo and story about the installation, and respond to media inquiries. To date, the organization has supported more than 1,500 book-share boxes through this program, and data shows that Impact Libraries reach 30% more children than other Little Free Library installations.

Action Book Club

Little Free Library’s Action Book Club combines active community service with group reading. Book club members discuss, dissect, and celebrate books as traditional book clubs do, but they also connect with communities through related group service outings.

The Little Free Library organization provides a national reading and service theme twice a year. In keeping with each theme, it offers a curated list of recommended books for young readers, middle readers, and adult readers. Additionally, it supplies a list of suggested service activities for clubs to undertake related to a given theme. Currently, the theme is In Our Nature, and members are challenged to honor the planet and think about how they connect with the world around them. Previous themes included Good Neighbors, Many Voices, We Are Family, and Everyday Heroes.

Little Free Library Unbound

Little Free Library Unbound is a series of digital events to connect book lovers and the organization’s supporters. This program consists of an online video library on topics related to maintaining Little Free Libraries, promoting literacy, celebrating books, hosting literary events, and serving multilingual communities through book-box exchanges. In addition to the videos hosted on the organization’s website, the full series is on its YouTube channel.

Collaborations With Police Stations

In 2017, with support from the Lawrence Grauman, Jr. Trust, Little Free Library launched the Kids, Community & Cops Program to foster positive connections between police officers and youth in their communities. The project provided 50 Little Free Libraries at police departments and outfitted 50 squad cars with books that officers could share while working in their communities. This Kids, Community & Cops program ran nationally in cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, and Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles, Little Free Libraries and police stations have a history that predated this program. In 2013, the LAPD sponsored its first Little Free Library at its Seventy-Seventh Street Area Station and now hosts book-exchange boxes at each of its stations. Officers also read stories to children twice a month. An LAPD press release from 2017 shares the following:

One important facet of the [Little Free Library] in the station lobbies is that it provides safe place for children to be if their parents have to report a crime. The children or their family members are often the victims of crimes, and if children hear their parents report the crime they can be traumatized and re-victimized. Providing a space for children shelters them from hearing about the details of frightening events in their lives. The books are supplied by officers and police leadership, community partners, and grass roots book drives as well as local public libraries.

Todd H. Bol Awards for Outstanding Achievement

Since 2019, the Little Free Library organization has given out the Todd H. Bol Awards for Outstanding Achievement to volunteers who go above and beyond to create reading networks and repair Little Free Libraries and whose work builds community. In 2023, Little Free Library presented six awards to the following stewards:

  • Librarian Valerie Janis of South Dakota brought a Little Free Library to the Pine Ridge Reservation because her community did not have access to books. Through her work, she’s encouraged others to start new book boxes and, collectively, her Little Free Library has given more than 2,500 books to residents.
  • Student John Manuel Newland picked up carpentry skills by working for his family’s construction company during summer breaks and put these skills to work building book-sharing boxes for schools in Georgia.
  • Tiffany Lester launched a Little Free Library in Saskatchewan, Canada, to support children in her community. She supplements her library with toys, clothing, diapers, and nonperishable foods. She fosters community ties through her Little Free Library, and, as someone who is disabled, she finds she has benefited as well from the experience. “Being a Little Free Library steward helps me reaffirm my worth as a person and change-maker,” she says.
  • Southern California teens Taylor Park, Susan Zhang, Layla Hahn, and Alexandra Law created Santa Ana’s Dynamite Book Club to support their town during the pandemic shutdown. The group built several libraries, including one hosted by the Santa Ana Zoo.
  • Mai Le of Daly City, California, launched her Little Free Library with her community in mind. In her city, about 60% of the population identifies as Asian, and 20% identifies as Latinx. Le notes, “I always have books by BIPOC authors for kids and adults in the library. It is hard to know the impact of this in our community, but I believe everyone deserves to see themselves in a book. …”
  • Making a huge impact across its city, the San Diego County Library has shared more than 20,000 books through its 43 Little Free Libraries and has plans to open 57 more book boxes in its communities.

Want to Support the Little Free Library Organization?

One-time and recurring donations to the Little Free Library organization are welcomed. Visit the donation page for more information.

Resource List

Little Free Library’s blog

littlefreelibrary.org/about/news-media/blog

Little Free Library World Map

littlefreelibrary.org/map

Little Free Library Online Store

shop.littlefreelibrary.org


Patti Gibbons is a Chicago-based librarian and freelance writer. Her email address is pattigibbons216@gmail.com.



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