Popping up in neighborhoods across the world, Little Free Libraries have been bringing the joy of reading to people, young and old for over a decade. From front lawns and street corners, barbershops, beaches, and malls, these birdhouse-shaped boxes brimming with books are colorful reminders of the importance of community spirit and of how simple acts of kindness can brighten all our lives.
The story of how Little Free Libraries became a global phenomenon begins in 2009, when Todd Bol, from Hudson, Wisconsin, built a small replica of a schoolhouse as a tribute to his mother who was a teacher and book-lover. Todd placed the school-shaped box on a post in his front lawn, filled it with an assortment of books, and attached a sign saying FREE BOOKS on it. His neighbors were delighted and immediately fell in love with the idea of Todd’s small, community library. Soon after, Todd began building more Little Free Libraries for others who wanted to take part in sharing and exchanging books, and the Little Free Library movement was born.
Today, there are more than 100,000 registered Little Free Libraries across the globe in 108 different countries. What started out as a small gesture of generosity has become a world-renowned registered charity that champions literacy, community engagement, recycling, and kindness.
Most Little Free Libraries operate on an honor system, where people are able to take and donate books as they please, free of charge. Some Little Free Libraries cater to children, whereas others may provide books for older readers or a mixture of both. While these community treasure troves come in all shapes, sizes, designs, and colors, often reflecting the personality and creativity of their owner, what unites all Little Free Libraries is a love of literature and the desire to inspire creativity and imagination through reading.
Over the years, the Little Free Library nonprofit has partnered with many high-profile organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, Books for Africa, the International Literacy Association, and Library of Congress, which itself has its very own Little Free Library within its hallowed halls.
Through fostering neighborhood book exchanges around the world, one of the driving forces of the Little Free Library organization is to help supply books for those most in need of them. One of the best ways to improve literacy, particularly in children, is to increase their access to books, especially within their homes. For children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, resources for obtaining books may be scarce. Countless scientific and academic studies have proven the benefits of reading from a young age, with the Little Free Library’s own website noting that “children growing up in homes without books are on average three years behind children in homes with books, even when controlled for other key factors.” With access to a Little Free Library, however, those who need books most can receive them for free through these 24/7 community book-shares.
Far from just leading the way in literacy for all, however, owners of Little Free Libraries have been spreading kindness and help most recently through converting their book boxes into little free pantries to help those most in need during the coronavirus pandemic. Swapping fiction for flour, picture-books for pasta and bestsellers for bread, good Samaritans across the globe are looking out for one another by using their Little Free Libraries as food-exchanges, where people who have surplus pantry items can leave them for those left stranded by illness, shop closures and food shortages. Along with sharing store-cupboard staples, others are choosing to leave a notebook inside the converted library boxes, for people to write down requests or share telephone numbers as a way of creating community helplines. Others still are choosing to stock their Little Free Libraries with books, games, and craft accessories, all individually wrapped for sanitary purposes, as a way to keep families entertained and happy during these uncertain times.
In a time when we are having to keep our distance, Little Free Libraries are bringing people together through generosity and goodwill more than ever before. And, as Todd Bol knew when he set up his book-sharing movement, kindness is free, so let’s pass it on.
For more information on starting your own Little Free Library and for resources on supporting literacy for all, visit the Little Free Library website.
Photo: Little Free Library in Easthampton, MA (John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons)