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Monday, December 31, 2012

Little Free Libraries: A Mighty Idea

Miniature houses seem to have a magnetic pull on me. I find them fascinating. It may stem from my attachment to our childhood dollhouse. Birdhouses. Miniatures towns at the model railroad museum. Dog houses. Playhouses. Gingerbread houses. Barbie’s very pink mansion. What is it about small-scale houses? I like them all! Is it because I am such a nester? Home represents comfort to me, warmth, familiarity, nurturing, a soft spot to land. Perhaps a small version of home taps into the happy feelings I have about home. Or maybe it’s because miniature things are so adorable. Even the toughest dude will turn into putty inside a dollhouse accessories store.

I passed a tiny house a few days ago while visiting my family for Christmas. It was positioned near a bench in a landscaped wedge of land behind a strip of stores. It was placed there for people to discover as they walked by. There was no giant neon arrow pointing it out. I liked that it was there for walkers to happen upon, like an unexpected present, or like running into a good friend.

The more I think about it, the more I see that a house-shaped box is an ideal shape for a free neighborhood library. At some people’s houses there is a welcome message on the doormat or an open door to show hospitality. The little library’s house shape invites you closer, underscoring its goal of welcoming, lending and fostering a neighborhood sensibility. After finding the little library, I checked its website ( and learned more about why little free libraries exist. From the website:

“The idea is to promote literacy and community-building by supporting book exchanges specifically in smaller communities that do not have their own public library. Hundreds of small communities throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the other 48 states are without public libraries.”

One goal is to build more than 2,510 libraries around the world (more than Andrew Carnegie!).

The founders of these libraries say, “The unique, personal touch seems to matter, as does the understanding that real people are sharing their favorite books. Leaving notes or bookmarks, having one-of-a-kind artwork on the Library or constantly re-stocking it with different and interesting books can make all the difference.”

The little libraries take free books a step beyond what city libraries do. At city libraries you need to get a library card (they are free) and while you are welcome to borrow any item, you are held accountable if it is lost or damaged. The little libraries may be how libraries originally started: based on trust. No one will know if you don’t return a book. No notices of overdue fines will follow you. Of course, I’m not advocating taking books without returning them. You should treat this privilege with care, But I find it nice that trust is given so freely. I also find it charming that the little libraries include a sense of serendipity. Who knows which books will be there when you next look? The surprise element is part of the fun.

Of course, a little library containing a few books is different from a big city library and all it offers. There are no mini computers inside the little libraries, available for anyone to use. There are no teeny cds to borrow, or tiny librarians who can help you find a book. No miniature story time on Thursdays. But they do serve a purpose, and they are delightful in how back-to-basics they are. These simple little libraries hold the appeal of a hand-written letter during an age when most of us communicate by email. The libraries foster a sharing, helping community spirit that aided in the survival of the first settlers in this country, when neighbors were more connected to one another than we are today, in an era of self-reliance.

As a side note I should say that I love city libraries and go almost every week to various branches around the city. My appreciation for these little free libraries does not change my passion for the city-run libraries. But it’s a fun discovery and I think they probably work in harmony. I was a little surprised that my parent’s city has a little free library, which is located a mere two blocks from the city’s library! But clearly people like and use the little free library.

When I passed the tiny house a few days ago I didn’t have my camera with me so I stopped by again later. In the morning there had been two books inside, and by mid-afternoon there were seven. It was fun to imagine people stopping by the little library in the hours since I’d discovered it. The doll-sized house reminded me of my own childhood dollhouse but it also brought back another childhood memory of the most basic motto learned in Kindergarten: share. It’s easy to do but it’s also easy to forget when our lives become very busy. This little library reminded me about how good it feels to share. Sometimes you learn something big when you go back to basics.

There are many quotes about reading online but I found two that spoke to me:
“Reading takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.
--- journalist Hazel Rochman
“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.”
― author and journalist Anna Quindlen

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