The Big Ambition of Little Free Library

The biggest tiny library system in the country is making inroads in Denver. Expect more branches of Little Free Library in your neighborhood soon.
Little gnome huts of knowledge are popping up like mushrooms in Denver in front of homes, on the 16th St. Mall, and outside museums and businesses. While there are now hundreds, expect to see more of them, and more ideas coming out of them, like food-sharing pantries and a club that's harnessing the power of community.

Students at the RiseUp Community School in Denver are building and donating six Little Free Libraries to elementary schools in Denver. "We are a social-justice-based school so we try and do things for a purpose. Students in the class learned about the school to prison pipeline, literacy rates, and the million word gap in poor communities," says Kate Sneed, a math teacher at RiseUp. "We then talked about organizations like Book Trust that are trying to increase access to books and reading for low-income families. Students jumped all over this idea as many of them shared stories about not having books at home growing up or have siblings who are currently in elementary school."

RiseUp students build a Little Free Library.Students have become so enthralled with the project -- Sneed calls it "the monster” -- that they want to stay after hours at school to work on it. The students are also talking with the schools where the Little Free Libraries in order to customize them.

They're also stocking them with books. "The students felt like donating empty libraries would defeat the purpose of helping improve access to books, so they are collecting new and gently used books at school from other students, staff, family and friends," says Sneed.

The biggest little library

These are the types of projects that make Little Free Library Executive Director Todd Bol proud. He built the first Little Free Library in Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2009, modeling it after a one-room schoolhouse in tribute to his mom, a book-happy teacher. 

"We're growing at a rate of about 1,000 to 2,000 Little Free Libraries a month around the world," says Bol, estimating that there are now more than 50,000 across the world. As a network, he estimates that it's a bigger exchange of books than the nation's largest municipal library system, the New York Public Library. "That system has 27 million exchanges," he says. "We have over 36 million a year."

Bol's nonprofit organization donated the charters for the RiseUp Little Free Libraries, Sneed says. The charter costs about $40, and includes a registration number and a spot on the Little Free Library world map.

The efforts of RiseUp are in line with latest Little Free Library project: Action Book Club. Launched in Jan. 2017, it invites groups to read books about how people can be good neighbors, encourages them to discuss what they've read and create a project to improve their community locally.

"We've started to do a lot of things where we watch and listen to our stewards, and then we end up sharing with others what the best practices are and what people do," Bol explains. He says Little Free Library is working with AARP on the project and expects stewards of Little Free Libraries will help organize the clubs as are community groups and churches.

A growing movement

Bol says librarians love the concept of Little Free Library. "We see ourselves as a branch of a branch and an expansion of bookstores and libraries," he says.

That's certainly true in Denver. It's a really great concept in terms of giving people access in different ways to different reading materials," says Annie Kemmerling, manager of innovation and strategy at Denver Public Library. "When I walk by, there are reading materials of all sorts of different reading levels, which is wonderful." 

Expect more Little Free Libraries in Denver soon.Indeed, a trip to a couple of Little Free Libraries in Denver revealed such fiction as The Shipping News and The Time Traveler's Wife, among philosophy books and magazines, including a copy of Juxtapoz. Kemmerling says she just dropped off Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Bol says one of the books he recently picked up Whatever You Are, Be a Good One: 100 Inspirational Quotations.

Denver Public Library took an active role. "A little over a year ago, we put a Little Free Library on the 16th Street Mall," says Kemmerling. The library partnered with the Downtown Denver Partnership to install one near California Street and keep it full of books. 

Kemmerling estimates that the library has donated hundreds of books to the Little Free Library, some of which the library is retiring from circulation. "Some are donations we haven't found a good home for," she says.

It's proving popular. "At times, it's been completely empty," Kemmerling observes. But it's also working as a library. "It's not just our materials anymore," she notes. "It's been supplemented by others."

Little Free Library also is helping spin off other neighborhood sharing services. Bol points to "tool exchanges, food exchanges, seed exchanges, plant exchanges. Some people put a little skirt at the bottom of the Little Free Library and put cans underneath it."

Echoes Kemmerling: "Little Free Pantries are starting to pop up across the country. People have these little pantries of food that people can take, and they're popping up in neighborhoods where you might not think there's a need, but there is. I think this whole concept of the sharing economy and access to resources, no matter what they are, is great."

Bol agrees. "The food pantries is really starting to catch on as an idea. We love it and we encourage it," he says. "Anything that connects the neighborhood and brings it together."

Read more articles by Chris Meehan.

Chris is a Denver-based freelance writer, editor and communications specialist. He covers sustainability, social issues and other topics.
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