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!

Thank you for reading this! If you think of someone else who might enjoy it, please forward it to them. And, if you are not already a subscriber, I invite you to subscribe to the Wednesday posts I am sending out each week–it’s easy, it’s free, and I won’t share your address with anyone!


Urban Adornments Afield: The Utility Boxes of Minneapolis and the Doors of San Jose

Mpls Box 1

This morning, when it is tempting to feel quite downhearted about stalled government at the national level, I want to shift focus to some truly inspiring examples of partnerships between local governments, local communities, and local artists. Maybe these two examples, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and from San Jose, California, will give you, too, a moment of respite by reminding you of the ways we join together to make things better.

What is more ungainly than a utility box or service door, unless it is one that is covered in graffiti? Today, I want to celebrate the way two cities are thinking outside the box by combining vandalism abatement, urban beautification, and support for neighborhood artists–many of them young people.



Now, I am someone who frequently finds graffiti weirdly beautiful and strange and incredibly creative. On the other hand, a little (even of the very best) of this freelance civic expression goes a long way; too much tips the landscape in a broken windows wasteland, an appearance of neglected and shattered hopes.

Mpls Box 2

 In Minneapolis, there is a new program to expand public art by local artists that captures the spirit of the city, beautifies baldly utilitarian surfaces, and deters vandalism. If you drive along Lake Street toward the Mississippi River, you’ll spot several examples. More can be found in other neighborhoods. These public art pieces are either painted by the artist at the site (and then coated for durability) or created by first digitizing the art, then transferring it to a vinyl wrap that is applied to the metal box. Both result in surprising and mood-lifting “art surprises” just where one least expects to see them.

Mpls Utility Box Dogs 1

 Here’s a terrific example: isn’t the symphony of blues a marvelous contrast to the golden leaves this week? What will it be like next to the snow of December? Now look a little bit closer:

Mpls Utility Box Dogs 2

I love the sweetness of the eyes of each dog. And I am so pleased that there is room for the work of two artists, front and back, along with their names, photos, and brief statements, as you can see below:

Mpls Utility Box Dogs 3

Mpls Utility Box Lines

 Below, a vivid close-up of a flower contrasts with a burnt-out building.

Mpls Utility Box Flower 1

Mpls Utility Box Flower 2

 Farther afield, in beautiful San Jose, California

Last year, Tim and I travelled to San Jose. We stayed right downtown, at the historic Sainte Claire Hotel. Both of us were wowed by the friendliness of the people, the number of cultural institutions (and great food!) within walking distance, and the absolute abundance of public art, from murals …

San Jose Mural

to mosaic tiles…

San Jose Mosaic

to whimsical sidewalk chalk…

San Jose Graffiti

The form that most captivated me, however, was the way the city had partnered with young high school artists and local businesses and organizations to transform blandly ugly service doors into portals into other realms through one-of-a-kind art.

Door 3A

According to Rick Jensen, Communications Director of the San Jose Downtown Association, the non-profit that launched the Downtown Doors project in 2003, it received national recognition last year. In 2012, the National Endowment for the Arts gave the project a $25,000 grant from the NEA, and it also won the International Downtown Association Award for public place-making in 2012. (And the award was received by them in …. Minneapolis!…. last September.)

Rick’s email informed me that, “The Washington, D.C.-based International Downtown Association (IDA), a champion for vital and livable urban centers which strives to inform, influence and inspire downtown leaders and advocates, gave its highest Pinnacle Award to SJDF in the category of Public Space, “recognizing capital improvements that enhance the community’s urban design, physical function or economic viability.”

“The San Jose Downtown Foundation’s project received this prestigious award for demonstrating excellence in downtown management,” said David Downey, IDA President and CEO. “Each year the IDA honors the very best programs and projects in each category to recognize great work and most importantly to set the standard for best practice in our industry. Downtown Doors is a wonderful example for all downtowns to emulate.”

“In awarding Downtown Doors a $25,000 ArtWorks grant,National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chairman Rocco Landesman spoke directly to the essence of the Downtown Doors program:  “The arts should be a part of everyday life.  Whether it’s seeing a performance, visiting a gallery, participating in an art class, or simply taking a walk around a neighborhood enhanced by public art, these grants are ensuring that across the nation, the public is able to experience how art works.””

With 25 new doors serving as the canvas for 25 new young artists in 2013, the City of San Jose now has 80 showcases for imagination. For a map of locations and thumbnails of each unique design, please click here.  I love to think about the young people who were in grade school when the program began and had work accepted this year; similarly, I wonder where life has taken the original cohort of artists.

Door 6

I know on a much smaller scale, from working with others in Northfield on public art projects, how much care and idealism, how many hours and meetings, go into a project like this. So today, I would like to salute these two major cities for their ongoing and inventive commitment to bringing people together through art.

If your town or city has a program that lifts your heart around public art, please let me know!


Thank you for reading this! If you think of someone else who might enjoy it, please forward it to them. And, if you are not already a subscriber, I invite you to subscribe to the Wednesday posts I am sending out each week–it’s easy, it’s free, and I won’t share your address with anyone!


Urban Adornments–An Overview

Aside from architecture, landscaping, and over-all civil engineering, cities have lots of options for encouraging higher experience of enjoyment, quality of life, sheer delight for visitors and residents alike. As one of our city councilors, Suzie Nakasian,  put it recently, public art shows that we are a “place that cares about place.”


High School Sculpture--Defeat of Jesse James Days

High School Sculpture–Defeat of Jesse James Days


There are so many examples I would like to highlight that I have decided to do a series of posts–a new one every now and then–so that I can show particular approaches or places in-depth. Later this fall, I am planning one on the public art of San Jose, California, one on the hanging signage I love, and a third on examples of that most kindly of literary mushrooms, the Little Library.

For now, I offer a brief overview of Northfield out-in-public art (not necessarily Official Public Art) I have enjoyed (and was able to photograph) over the past year. I have included anonymous graffiti as well as art visible from the street on private homes and businesses, as well as officially sanctioned art pieces.

Art on Bridge Square, Northfield, Minnesota

Art on Bridge Square, Northfield, Minnesota
















This kind of addition of uplifting beauty and whimsy lifts our hearts and slows us down. We’re more likely to say a few hellos or decide to patronize the local knitting store, bakery, or art gallery for that special gift instead of opting for gift cards or items from a big box or department store, and that is good for local merchants (our neighbors). The incentive to walk, making it not only possible but pleasurable to walk to a destination, surely a most healthy mode of transport for the individual, the community, the local economy, and the planet.

Downtown Northfield Sign

Downtown Northfield Sign
















Blue Monday Sign















Downtown Northfield Sign without Text

Downtown Northfield Sign without Text
















PacMan Trim

Modern Cave Painting on the Sidewalk?

Modern Cave Painting on the Sidewalk?


Little Library--St. Olaf Avenue
Little Library–St. Olaf Avenue































Here’s the 2005 sculpture, “Harvest”, by Ray Jacobson, in sight of the Ames Mill. Made to commemorate Northfield’s 150 birthday, the sculpture represents shocked grain. Some also see three pairs of cowboy boots!


Heart of Northfield--Fountain Sculpture and Civil War Memorial with Eagle Sculpture
Heart of Northfield–Fountain Sculpture and Civil War Memorial with Eagle Sculpture
































Merely games boards? Or keenly placed graphic art as well?

Sculpture outside of the Northfield City Hall

Sculpture outside of the Northfield City Hall

Rustic Flag
















Thank you for reading this! If you think of someone else who might enjoy it, please forward it to them. And, if you are not already a subscriber, I invite you to subscribe to the Wednesday posts I am sending out each week–it’s easy, it’s free, and I won’t share your address with anyone.