A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


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The Little Library That Could

Free neighborhood libraries are popping up all over

By Rick Brooks


You can boost literacy, neighborliness and the commons all at once with a Little Free Library. It’s such an ingeniously simple idea, you wonder why no one thought of it until now. You can take a book or leave a book (or both) at these informal institutions, which “look like birdhouses and act like water coolers” according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. They are popping up all over Wisconsin, moving into Minnesota and have been reported as far away as Chicago, Toronto, Colorado, Oregon, California, British Columbia and Mexico.

The idea began with social entrepreneur Todd Bol who built the first one in his home of Hudson, Wisconsin and kept right on going. He soon teamed up with his friend Rick Brooks in Madison to form the non-profit group Little Free Libraries to spread the idea. They are well on their way toward fulfilling the goal of establishing 2510 new libraries around the world, outdoing philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Brooks tells the story of Little Free Libraries here.

For the latest about the movement as well as all the information you need about building, buying, stocking and maintaining a Little Library in your neighborhood, go to their website Little Free Library

— Jay Walljasper of On The commons




Little Free Libraries are small structures that serve as an informal book exchange. Usually positioned atop a post in someone’s front yard, by a bike path or in a park, they seem to have an almost magical effect on people. Once people realize that they can “take” any book they want, they also become aware of a desire to share their favorite reads.

Little Libraries serve a function bigger than just distributing free books. Mothers tell us their children are as eager to take their books to the Library as they are to take them from. One fellow who put a Little Library in his yard affectionately recalled his desire to get up several times the first night and pat it on the roof. Down the street, a woman admits that the Library near a garden on her block “made me cry… because it was such a nice and positive idea.”

Of course, such an unprecedented idea raises questions.

Won’t someone steal the books? They ask. No. You can’t steal a free book.
Won’t troublemakers vandalize them? Well, maybe, but mostly not, especially if they feel as though their Little Library comes from someone they know and belongs to people they care about. The only incident to date, when a door was removed from a new Library in a public park, had its own remedy. One neighbor found the door and another repaired it the next day.

Can you put one in a park, a public bikepath or even the sidewalk? Park officials may worry about establishing a precedent in a public space. To date, the founders and patrons of Little Libraries have finessed such issues by finding non-publicly owned locations next to or across the street from parks and bike paths. The Libraries do not carry advertising. They are safe. Each Library has a steward to watch out for it; a contact person to call if there is a problem. Donors and borrowers check in almost every day. They don’t have to wait for a maintenance person or city employee to fix whatever seems amiss.

But who has the right—privilege or obligation—to be the steward? Almost anyone can do it. All you need is a good heart, a sense of responsibility and awareness of the interests of your neighbors. Some fifth grade boys seem particularly good at it because they feel needed. TimeBank members and moms as well as members of the Neighborhood Library Builders Guild (who construct many of the Libraries) are proud to protect their creations.


A Little Library is a connecting point. Accompanied by a bench or a garden, it attracts the curious as well as regular patrons; pushers of baby carriages and dog walkers as well as bicycle riders and runners; commuters in addition to casual evening strollers. When kids’ answer to the question “Where are you going?” is, “oh, we’re going to the Library,” the symbolic meaning takes shape. A Library to them means a Little Library they can reach…and give to…and treasure, right there in their own neighborhood.



Parker Palmer, author of Healing the Heart of Democracy has often commented about our need for local gathering places where people who may not have known each other before could meet and chat about common interests. “I wish I’d known about the ‘Little Free Library’ movement when I was writing the book!” he recently wrote on his blog. “ These libraries— which are a cross between a bookshelf and a birdhouse—are popping up all around my neighborhood; I saw 3 of them on 2-mile walk yesterday. Even if no one is there when you’re borrowing or contributing books, they say, ‘In this neighborhood, we share and we care.‘”


For the complete text of this article, go to OnTheCommons.org/little-library-could



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