For a very long time I’ve been intending to celebrate the growth and popularity of the Little Free Libraries that continue to pop up in neighborhoods throughout the Twin Cities and far beyond. The time is now, because the Little Free Library project has just received the 2013 Innovations in Reading Prize awarded by the National Book Foundation! The prize honors individuals and institutions that have created innovative ways to initiate and sustain a lifelong love of learning.
In this case, the institution is the Little Free Library (LF) and the innovators are Todd Bol and Rick Brooks. It all started in 2009 when the two men met at a workshop Brooks taught at UW-M where he was outreach program manager in continuing studies. Brooks had some previous library experience helping build and maintain library collections in third world countries where he also had experience in community development. Bol was between gigs, obviously full of energy and ideas. In the early years, LFL was a project of Wisconsin Partners for Sustainability. Since 2012 LFL has operated as a nonprofit operating out of International HQ in Hudson Wisconsin.
The story is a delightful tale of a good idea brought to fruition by a couple of committed people with a vision. Since the project began in 2009 Little Free Library exchanges have burst on the scene in 30 countries. The first LFL consisted of a box of books that looked like a one-room schoolhouse with a sign that read “Free Books.” The LFL was posted on Brooks’ front lawn in Hudson, Wisconsin, established as a memorial to Bol’s mother, a bibliophile teacher
Today, the hub of the every LFL exchange is a bird-house size “library” that houses a snatch of books that circulate on the honor system. The mission is “to promote a sense of community, reading for children, literacy for adults, and libraries around the world.” The founders remind participants in the exchange that “sense of community trumps everything.”
Little Free Libraries assume unique personalities and permutations as the ideas and adaptations expand. In Minneapolis, the Books for All in Minneapolis (http://www.littlefreelibrary.org/books-for-all-in-minneapolis.html) has its own structure and persona. Each neighborhood that agrees to host a LFL identifies an individual or group to serve as a steward for their Library. Stewards give the Library and books the care they need. Sponsors contribute funds that cover the cost to build, deliver and install a unique LFL. Each Library holds 20-40 books, many donated by generous sponsors such as Northeast Minneapolis publisher Coffee House Press which was contributed thousands of books and generous cash gifts to the project. Each site sports a sign that recognizes the sponsor(s) and indicates that this LFL is registered as part of the city and now global network of exchanges.
LFL has also attracted the attention and generous support of AARP. The Touch Points Project is designed to address the challenges faced by socially isolated older adults. Bol and Brooks describe the project as one that write that “will build upon the connections and common interests stimulated by reading-related activities generated by neighborhood book exchanges. The idea is to bring people together by reading aloud, promoting friendly visits, book discussions and other ways to engage isolated older adults in community life, especially those who are vulnerable to loneliness and ill health because of limited means. The steps and procedures for interested individuals and groups to participate in the AARP project are available at http://www.littlefreelibrary.org/reaching-out-to-socially-isolated-older-adults.
No surprise, libraries are key players in the LFL movement. Though there is no requirement for library involvement, Brooks and Bol say that “this entire program has been designed with Friends of Libraries in mind. Little Libraries offer creative and upbeat outreach tools to extend the reach of the public library to parts of your community that might not otherwise use it.”
The LFL website (http://www.littlefreelibrary.org) is a vibrant and endlessly informative resource. Check it out for an update on the project’s global development, including an interactive map of sites, and details about LFL sites, especially photos of the imaginative designs created by readers and craftspeople of every stripe. Through June 21, 2013 you’ll have a chance to participate in the LFL film festival! You’ll also find a great video that introduces Brooks and Bol putting words to their vision – you’ll soon find yourself envisioning a host of LFL’s popping up in your own front yard or neighborhood.