Nel's New Day

June 25, 2014

City Blocks Little Free Library

I love books. Not the electronic ones. The ones that have covers and paper pages and real ink. Sometimes I’m in the middle of reading five or six books, and there’s always a high stack of them next to my bed. Occasionally, they spill over on the floor as one of the cats walks around them.

That might be why I was so caught up in a recent article from the Eugene (OR) Register Guard about a Little Free Library. I looked at the pictures and said to my partner, “Can you make a waterproof thing to hold books outside.” She never accuses me of being crazy; she just patiently listens.

free library redAll over the country, cute home-build cabinets with doors and shelves filled with books are appearing in front of houses, on street corners, and in other accessible locations. Each one is a Little Free Library for a free exchange of books. People are encouraged to “take a book, return a book.” The thousands of them across the United States have company in other countries, even one in western Russia.

One man in Wisconsin started the movement in 2009 when he honored his mother, a school teacher, with a model of a one-room schoolhouse. He filled it with books and invited people to take them. What he discovered is that he ended up with more books because people brought others to add to the collection. The word spread, and 400 of them were scattered across the country within two years.

By 2012, the Little Free Library free library eyesdecided to get nonprofit tax status and surpassed its goal of registering 2,510 of the little libraries—one more than Scottish magnate Andrew Carnegie endowed between 1883 and 1929. As a nonprofit, Little Free Library can receive tax-deductible donations and grants for buying books and materials for the little libraries. By now, there are over 15,000 of the tiny libraries registered.

The wee library featured in the Register-Guard article built his from donations: a builder tearing down a house gave the windows, and neighbors gave him wood and shingles. The city of Eugene and the Eugene Water & Electric Board allowed him to put the small structure on their property. He said, “EWEB even donated the gravel, which volunteers from the neighborhood came out and spread, and when we had the big (February snow) storm when a lot of tree limbs came down, their crews cleaned it all up.”

Neighbors now get together for potlucks when they provide painting or other maintenance for the structure. Over 1,000 books have been exchanged, and it’s a “kid magnet,” according to the man who constructed the library. A neighbor said, “Two weeks ago, I saw a mom and two little kids coming along the street. The little girl was just jumping up and down with excitement to get there and look at the books.”

free 1 childThis year, Cheerios will help the Little Free Library organization raise money to build at least 50 of the units in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Texas. Cheerios teamed with Indiegogo, a crowd-sourcing site that helps people and organizations raise money online.

People with little free libraries find that they promote reading and build communities. People pick up books that they might otherwise not have discovered. And they aren’t new. In earlier times, lighthouse keepers kept bookcases of books to trade with other keepers, and traveling libraries were found in general stores and post offices where libraries didn’t exist.

free library child 2Some homemade libraries are plain, some are ornate. Some have benches or chairs nearby, and you can find them in parks, neighborhoods, bicycle paths, college campuses. Except in one town in Kansas.

On Mother’s Day, nine-year-old Spencer Collins enlisted the help of his father and grandfather to build one of these libraries. He decided he wanted to put up a little library his neighbors in the Kansas City suburb of Leawood to share his love of reading with others. “It’s kind of like I’m in a whole other world and I like that. I like adventure stories because I’m in the adventure and it’s fun.” The fun ended when he and his family got back from a vacation to find a letter from the city. According to the city, Spencer’s library was a violation to the city code and had to be removed by the June 19. Otherwise, the Collins would receive a citation.

spencer-collins-little-free-library-638x403 Leawood called the little library an “accessory structure,” and the city bans buildings that aren’t attached to someone’s home. They said they had receive two complaints. Spencer took down the library to avoid a citation, but he plans to fight City Hall. “I would tell them why it’s good for the community and why they should drop the law. I just want to talk to them about how good it is.” He also thought about attaching it to the house, to “tie a rope around it and attach the rope to the house.” And he has a Facebook page for his Little Free Library.

Libraries in the United States go back to 1638 when John Harvard donated 280 books to a new college, and they named the school after him. Yet until 1833, people had to pay to use libraries. After Peterborough (NH) opened a free library that year, there were no others for another 21 years when the Boston Public Library opened. Its statement of purpose proclaimed the importance of education on the future of democracy and the right of citizens to free access to community-owned resources.

Andrew Carnegie was known as a “robber baron,” but he still believed that everyone should have access to libraries. Conservatives called him a Communist for wanting to use taxes for libraries, and progressives claimed the taxes were a drain on working people. His donations of $50 million to build 2,500 library buildings probably led to the public library system.

free library child 3In the nineteenth century, libraries had age restrictions to keep children from borrowing books and lacked open shelving for books. With the arrival of large numbers of immigrants, libraries became community centers. During the Great Depression, they were a warm place to go. Images of Nazis burning books during World War II and other totalitarian governments throughout the century made libraries more important to people in the U.S.

A form of burning books is restricting availability as the South did to blacks during the 1940s. I’m glad I live in Oregon where grassroots efforts can be successful. I’m also glad that Leawood tried to cite Spencer and his family for his “illegal” structure. Because the news has gone viral, millions more people know now about Little Free Libraries.

[The following isn’t a picture of a Little Free Library, but I love the concept!]

book fountain


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