(Photo: Ali Eminov/Flickr)

Why Little Free Libraries Are the Water Coolers of the Digital Age

The popular, homemade ‘give a book, take a book’ boxes bring neighbors together.
Sep 21, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

There's one in Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood cut in the shape of a local stray cat, complete with jet-black fur, snow-white whiskers, and canary-yellow eyes. Another, in Houston, is an 8-foot-tall magenta robot that could pass as a close cousin of the Iron Giant. A third, in the Atlanta suburbs, is patterned after a pre–Great Depression movie house, art deco marquee and all.

Whatever size or shape Little Free Libraries—hand-built wooden book boxes placed on street corners or in public parks—take, one thing about them is constant: Their global popularity is booming. In an era of Kindles, shuttered public libraries, and Amazon algorithms that tell us what books we should purchase, more than 18,000 LFLs can be found in 70 countries. About 1,000 new LFLs are opening up worldwide every month.

The LFL business model is simple: A person borrows a book and replaces it with one of his or her own. No hours of operation. No late fees. No searching for long-lost library cards. Just bibliophiles, usually neighbors, using the honor system to trade whatever books they feel should be shared with those living nearby. A steward or sponsor maintains the book house.

Wisconsin-based Todd Bol, a cofounder of the Little Free Libraries along with Rick Brooks, built the first one in 2009 using wood salvaged from a home makeover. "I was sitting on my back porch, with my cable saw, looking at this garage door I no longer had any use for, and it just kind of hit me," he said from Manila, Philippines, where he was conducting a seminar for local officials on setting up LFLs.

That inaugural model, shaped after a schoolhouse and initially put on display during a yard sale, was dedicated to Bol's late mother, an avid reader and a former teacher.

"When I saw people react to the first one like it was a puppy dog, I thought it had a whole bunch of magic that seemed to ignite the community, but I never expected it to go this far," said Bol.

For each negative Little Free Library story out there—in June, a boy in Kansas City was forced to take down the LFL he built because of a building code that prohibits freestanding edifices in front yards—there are positive stories of what the movement has done to foster a sense of community.

Little Free Library in Pennsylvania (Photo: Flickr)

Bol was quick to cite an impromptu meeting he had a year ago with an American man after an LFL seminar at a Rotary Club. "This guy, he approached me and said, 'I'm 60, and when I was a kid, my parents would sit on the front porch and talk with neighbors while we were playing on the sidewalk. Then we got an air-conditioning unit, and we shut the windows and went inside. The digital divide had begun. It's taken over 50 years, but these dang little libraries have us talking to each other again.'"

While there are no hard facts indicating how much LFLs have boosted literacy rates—Bol said he would welcome a grant to conduct such a study—he points to the LFL program Books Around the Block as proof of its efficacy. The initiative, begun in crime-ridden north Minneapolis in 2012 to provide books to a populace that otherwise might not have access to them, has been a runaway success, with more than 240 LFLs springing up in two short years.

Bol isn't just the movement's founder; he's a proud and regular customer too. Left to his own devices, Bol said, he would never have read the more than 25 Dr. Seuss books he's pulled from his local LFL. "And that's the point. That's why it's so important—it broadens horizons."

Asked where he hoped Little Free Libraries would be in 10 years, Bol laughed and said he's circled a much earlier date on his calendar: January 2016.

That's when, at current projected growth rates, Little Free Libraries will have propagated more books than McDonald's has served hamburgers. “ ‘Billions and billions served—more books than burgers.’ How's that for a slogan, huh?" he said.

This article is brought to you by IBM's People for Smarter Cities. Take Part is teaming up with IBM to highlight innovative ideas and creative change makers who are helping cities all around the world move forward.