At first glance they seem like grand, elaborately crafted birdhouses. On approach you realize this small structure is mounted far too low for birds. A closer look reveals an interior filled not with twigs and feathers, but a small collection of books. Why is this “book house” here on the side of the street, and who takes care of it? Where do the books come from? A placard nestled on the inside wall leaves only a marginal clue: “Take a book, leave a book.” Aha! You’ve just found a Little Free Library.
Little Free Library is the invention of Todd Bol of Hudson and Rick Brooks of Madison, Wisconsin. Bol first came up with the idea in 2009 after he built a small, weatherproof container to house books for loan and placed it in his yard. He made the container in the shape of a “one-room schoolhouse,” in honor of his schoolteacher mother, June. During a later garage sale, Bol realized the miniature schoolhouse was garnering more attention than his used roller blades. He called his good friend Rick Brooks and the two realized they had chanced upon something that had the potential to generate community interaction in the name of literacy and fun. “People come to these libraries and have conversations with people they wouldn’t have met otherwise,” says Bol.
People who want to have a Little Free Library in their city, neighborhood, or yard can either purchase a prebuilt one through the Little Free Library website or at Absolutely Art on Atwood Avenue in Madison—the only retail location for Little Free Libraries. The roughly two by two foot structures are made of plywood with heavy recycled wood for the outer walls. A sealed Plexiglass door keeps the books safe from the elements. The libraries cost around $350 to buy, including installation and ongoing support from Little Free Library. A portion of the cost for the prefab libraries is set aside to support the creation of Little Free Libraries in developing countries. But experienced or ambitious builders are encouraged to create their own miniature, weatherproof structures from scratch.
After installation, the Little Free Library is then filled with books donated from the personal collections of community members. The idea is to take a book and leave in its place a personal favorite or a book that made an impact so others can share that same wonderful experience. Each library generally seems to develop a common content theme based on the desires and interests of its surrounding community. Little Free Libraries often contain book or magazine titles that appeal to several types of readers, though the selection can change noticeably in a short period of time due to different contributions.
A designated steward oversees each library, and they are in charge of maintaining the “building,” communicating with the Little Free Library organization, and monitoring the library’s content. The idea is catching on. Today there are seventy Little Free Libraries. Bol and Brooks hope to build over 2,510 Little Free Libraries all over the world (and, in doing so, surpass the 2,509 public libraries built by Andrew Carnegie). Thus far there are several locations in Wisconsin, others in Minnesota, Oregon, and Illinois as well as upcoming libraries in California, New Mexico, the UK and even India.
Interest and participation in the program is growing fast, and Little Free Libraries can be found everywhere from inside coffee shops, to beside bike paths, in gardens and in the lawns of private residences. Thus far the Little Free Libraries have facilitated everything from impromptu literary conversation between neighbors to groups of children voluntarily reading together. To learn more about the Little Free Library program or to find out how you can participate, visit littlefreelibrary.org.