A Hand-Built Box on the Corner Could Help Bring an End to Book Deserts

The Little Free Library movement hopes to provide literature in low-income communities.

(Photo: Alison Hibbard)

May 20, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

There’s a small painted wooden box down the hill from my house, and it’s chock-full of books. People in the neighborhood can take a tome to read—everything from a steamy romance novel to a treatise on current events can be obtained—or they can bring a text and place it inside for someone else to enjoy.

The box is one of more than 27,000 Little Free Libraries around the world—some of them are built to look like black cats or castles. Or school buses. Now the nonprofit behind the movement to foster literacy and build community is working to spread the concept to parts of America where it’s tough to find something to read: book deserts. To help ensure that this happens, the organization has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000, money that will help install and maintain Little Free Libraries in the high-poverty rural and urban communities that need them most.

“When you look at how important the ability to read is to someone's outcome, not having access to books is a huge societal problem,” wrote Kris Huson, the nonprofit’s director of marketing and communications, in an email. “Poverty, poor health, and crime are all wedded to the inability to read well. So if we can plant a box of books on the corner that now people can easily access, why wouldn't we? It's so simple and a very positive step.”

One in five children in the United States lives in poverty, and according to Reading Is Fundamental, two-thirds of kids who live in low-income homes have no books there. When I first moved to Los Angeles in 1998, I worked in impoverished Compton, California, as a third-grade teacher. I required my students to have a silent reading book, but—as too many teachers working in underserved schools discover—then I realized that I’d have to be the one providing those texts.

Thanks to budget cuts, access to a school library was limited. I couldn’t tell my students to walk to the public library a mile and a half away from their homes because the high crime rate in the community might endanger their safety. If their parents wanted to drive them to a brick-and-mortar bookstore, there were none around—the closest was on the USC campus, 12 miles to the north.

Even if a parent is able to make the trek to a bookstore or order a text online, as Little Free Library notes on its Kickstarter page, “families cannot afford to buy books, which average $10 a piece. For many families, taking care of basic needs will always win over buying books.”

The organization hopes to provide books to educators that can be sent home over the summer with children. The connection with schools is part of the Little Free Library legacy. The first of the imaginative-looking boxes was built in Wisconsin in 2009 by the nonprofit’s founder, Todd Bol. He made it look like a small schoolhouse in honor of his mom, who had been a teacher and an avid reader.

“Yesterday we helped a group build 40 Little Free Libraries that will be installed in 40 rural book deserts in Western Wisconsin. Today, I talked with a public librarian in Eastern Tennessee who wants to put Little Free Libraries in high needs areas that are far from her public library,” wrote Huson. The organization hopes to expand its connection to law enforcement agencies. “Last Friday 20 libraries went to the Los Angeles Police Department who will put [them] in high needs neighborhoods," she added.

Huson wrote that the schools and organizations it collaborates with become stewards of literacy in their communities. “They are our on-the-ground sets of eyes and ears who know where books are needed most. Every single day, we help address book access. Every day we are ending book deserts,” wrote Huson.