Little Free Libraries Revisited

This is an update of an ongoing obsession, one I documented nearly four years ago with a post entitled “Literary Mushrooms: Little Free Libraries Springing Up.” If you have not seen it, it is well worth a look, as it includes an essay from a “Little Free Librarian” of my acquaintance, Ann Lacy. She writes about the impulse to plant a book-sharing site in her front garden and about the care and feeding of it.

The Little Free Library movement was begun in 2009 by Todd Bol in Hudson, Wisconsin, with a single structure designed to honor his mother. Since then, the idea has clearly become a global not-for-profit community literacy phenomenon with real staying power. People love reading and want to share that love with others. The official website has some pretty spectacular maps and statistics, as well as plans for building your own, photographs of examples, and links to purchase both libraries and plaques.

While perusing their website recently, I learned that according to a survey of 3,000 Little Free Library stewards and fans conducted just last month (October 2017), 74 percent report that they have read a book they would not normally read because they found it at a Little Free Library; 73 percent say they have met more of their neighbors due to the presence of a Little Free Library; and 92 percent say their neighborhood feels like a friendlier place because a Little Free Library is present. I also learned that as of a year ago there are more than 50,000 such Little Free Libraries world-wide!

Above  are three images of a delightful example Julia and I discovered this past summer in Appleton, Wisconsin. Below are some images friends (and devoted readers!) Bill and Beth Clary took in their new community of Newburyport, MA, and even one Beth spotted on a recent trip to the Czech Republic in an old city called Kutna Hora.

I have been wondering why this movement is so moving to me. And I have come to see each of these as outposts of civility, generosity, kindness, trust, and literacy. All too often it can seem that contentiousness, querulousness, duplicity, paranoia, and misspelled tweets hold sway over public discourse–even though I do not encounter these qualities very often in my own daily rounds, these deadening trends flow through every news cycle. Yet, every time I spot a Little Free Library, I feel uplifted. In the images that follow, there is a gallery of good will. These were taken in Northfield and in places I have traveled in the past three years. And, if you have the patience to scroll to the very end, you will see a special adaptation of this trend that goes a step beyond into the realm of random kindness.

Here is one on my usual walk to the Northfield Public Library, and below, another from my neighborhood (where I also spotted the bumper sticker!)

These others are farther afield in Wang’s Woods.

Here are some from near Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, our old neighborhood.

And here are some from St. Paul on Grand Avenue near Macalester College and on Randolph Avenue.

Here is one we found in Winona, Minnesota, when we attended a Great River Shakespeare Festival performance of Richard III on the Winona State University campus.

Here are two views of the one greeting shoppers near the garden entrance to the St. Peter Food Co-op. (Note the clever roof shingles made of old license plates!)

Here is one on Cathedral Hill in St. Paul maintained by Moscow on the Hill Restaurant.

Here are two views of the whimsical one in the parking lot of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.

Here is one near another place we used to live, on Penn Avenue South in Minneapolis.

Here are three images of a special one in Grand Marais, on Minnesota’s North Shore. Not only does it have a stellar view of the North House Folk School and beyond to Lake Superior, it has sections for all readers and can be opened from front and back.

Here is one sited near a senior apartment building in the little western Minnesota town of Lake Crystal.

Here are a couple in the very center of the tourist town of Decorah, Iowa, just a block or so from the famous Vesterheim: The National Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center.

Here is one in the one park of the tiny Minnesota hamlet of Fountain near the Root River bike trail.

Clearly, each one is different, and each one makes a difference–rather like us.

This adaptation is just a few blocks from my house, outside of St. John’s Lutheran Church. I spotted it when Tim and I attended the annual members meeting of Just Food Co-op. Here is a close-up of the inspired and inspiring signage.

So, every time I see one of these Little Free Libraries, I am reminded of how I am free to be a little more kind and giving, a little more free-handed, and a little more creative in how I make a difference in my own corner of the world. And also I am reminded of the sheer fun and pleasure of reading and writing and sharing words and pictures!

I close this with two images I took this summer from the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden of a sculpture by Theaster Gates honoring St. Laurence, the patron of librarians and archivists.

Happy Reading! Happy Fall!


Literary Mushrooms: Little Free Libraries Springing Up

Little Free Library Sunburst Roof 1

Little Free Library Sunburst Roof 2

Doll’s house? Bird house? Spirit house? Picturesque junction box?

Chances are, if you have spotted a small house-shaped structure raised to mailbox height, it is a Little Free Library.

Library Montessori

(This one is outside a Montessori school in Northfield.)

In Minnesota, there is a real mystique about morel mushrooms. If you have ever found one yourself–or even eaten one (sauted in butter and garlic) yourself–then you know that they are to be prized wherever they pop up. Recently, perhaps two years ago, I started noticing little doll-house-sized libraries popping up, clearly the result of people who prize the deliciousness of curling up with an as-yet-unread book. When I learned that my friend, Ann Lacy, a voracious reader and former librarian, had one, I asked her to write a few words about the experience.

Library Ann Front

Library Ann Side

Library Ann Back

Why I have a Little Library

I love books.  I love to read books, to read about books, to browse and own and accumulate books.  And I like the idea of passing on books I no longer want to others who might want them, so when  I first started noticing Little Libraries maybe five years ago—now my neighborhood is studded with them (like jewels, only so much better)—I knew that I would like to have and stock one myself someday.   Someday would have been never, due to my doubts that I could make anything other than a lopsided leaker, but fortunately, I share my home with an engineer.  And so, last year, I downloaded the plans from the website, and described to Steve what I would like (one shelf, tall enough to accommodate a picture book, a windowed door making it easy to view titles from the outside) and he took it from there, using wood from what had been a craft table when our children were small, paint left over from the exterior of our house on the Library’s exterior, and from our sunny yellow kitchen on the interior, buying only hinges and a plexiglass panel for the door, and enlisting the assistance of our artistic daughter Katarina when she was home on break to decorate the exterior with flowers and felines.  Our Library is mounted on a section of freshly cut tree branch scavenged by Steve while running in a riverside park past city workers pruning;  hops from the Steve’s nearby hop arbor twined around the base this summer and fall, and in the winter it has been adorned with a string of blue Christmas lights and often impressive icicles.  The Library began its time in our yard shaded like the front of our house by a city maple tree, which we lost to a dangerous crack in the trunk in early summer—a loss the residents of the house felt keenly in the heat, although the Library itself seems impervious to weather.  I have put many books into the Library, and taken some books from the Library, and numerous people known and unknown to me have done the same.   It is an entirely satisfying thing, like having a year-round bubbler in the front yard.   Ann Lacy

Joe and Kat Klafka (artist) in front of the Lacy-Klafka Little Free Library (2013)

Joe and Kat Klafka (artist) in front of the Lacy-Klafka Little Free Library (2013)

Most Little Libraries seem to be tended by individual families. Last month, however, on a visit to our old Minneapolis neighborhood of Linden Hills, I gasped in surprise: Shades of Snow White!  There were seven dwarf libraries in a row!

Libraries All in a Row

I had never before stood where a person with long arms could have borrowed from two libraries at once! And as I looked closely, these were sponsored by the locally owned businesses that make this area so lively and attractive. Each had its own personality.

Library in Linden Hills

On Northfield’s streets, too, Little Libraries are springing up. One that I have particularly admired is at the Swanson home on a tree-lined main artery where I often walk in good weather, St. Olaf Avenue.

Library Swanson House

Library Swanson

Recently, I talked with Judy Swanson. She told me that the library was built as an 80th birthday gift for her husband, Steve, a retired teacher and author of many books. Their son modeled the structure along the lines of the shed that sits farther up the drive. Both the shed and the library sport a dragon ridge along the roof, while cedar shakes cover the sides.

Library Swanson Shed

The style’s elegant lines are an expression of the love the Swansons share for all things Scandinavian, especially design. It has been in place since the summer of 2012, about eighteen months now. The library is stocked with many kinds of books, including copies of Steve’s titles. Users immediately understood the concept, and the stock turns over because often people leave one book when they take another. I asked Judy what it is like to be caretakers of a Little Library, she had this to say:

“It is a joy that nothing can diminish, not even the three episodes we’ve experienced of Saturday night vandalism. Actually, I could tell dozens of stories, but here are just two, both resulting from the character of our street, which has a lot of foot traffic. A neighbor overhead  two young girls say, “Let’s meet at the little library.” It was interesting to know that it is sometimes a destination, a rendezvous point. Another time we were out working in the yard, and a young woman jogged by. Without breaking stride, she waved and called, “I loved your book!” Steve was pleased; what author doesn’t like to know his work is being read and appreciated.

“As a trend, I think these libraries are a friendly way for people to connect, even if they never actually meet in person,” Judy said.

Recently, the Swansons’ grandson, who has a Little Library a few blocks away in front of his own home, decided that just as his grandparents house has out-buildings, so, too, the Little Library needed one. The remedy he designed and provided now rests at the foot of the main library building.

Library Swanson Library Shed

Here is another Northfield example, at Linden and Greenvale:

Library Greenvale

And below is a Minneapolis example that appears to have adapted a kitchen cupboard for library use. Its sign is clearly hand-lettered. I think it makes the (jauntily colored) chain-link fence appear positively friendly. This is the location where, last year, I found a copy of a book I had been meaning to read for at least a decade: The #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. I was driving past, planning this post, actually, and approached only to get the photograph. But I simply couldn’t resist the book! Since then, I have read through the entire series. (I borrowed the others from the traditional Carnegie Library a few blocks from my house). I had many winter hours enlivened by that chance encounter with a “freelance” Free Library. Maybe this year I will be able to find it again and replace the book I took with something else that another person might be happy to find! (Note that this location also offers bookmarks!)

Narrow Little Library

Narrow Little Library 2

Do you have a Little Free Library or an informal “Little Freelance Free Library” outside of the network? Do you think you might create one? Or  have you patronized or just enjoyed seeing them in your area? If so, please drop me a line or send a jpg. I am very curious about this social and civilizing trend. As for us, well, Tim and I have been talking…stay tuned! Perhaps there will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Winona Street in the next year or two!

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