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What We’re Reading: The Little Free Library Book

2015 April 10

What We're ReadingLFLThe Little Free Library Book by Margret Aldrich (Coffee House Press, 2015)

First of all, happy AWP 2015 Conference, dear writers and readers! If you are partaking in the national writer’s conference based here in our very own Minneapolis, I wish you merry liter-nerdy adventures galore! In honor of the celebratory spirit of a nation of writers converging, I decided to do a BONUS review today. And I’m featuring one of my all-time favorite publishers who just so happens to also be based in this grand city of Minneapolis: Coffee House Press. This book, The Little Free Library Book, is something entirely unique and exciting to read. My partner and I recently had an offer accepted on our first house, and shortly after, I read this book. Let me tell you: it has me VERY excited to build my own Little Free Library (LFL) as soon as we move in!

For those of you unfamiliar with these little gems, they are libraries that folks put in their front lawns (mostly, although people have been known to get very creative!). They typically look like little houses, although again, people get innovative with their libraries. They operate on a “take a book, leave a book” philosophy, and in that way, are always changing. Founder Todd Bol (of nearby Hudson, WI) says about them, “It engages and brings neighborhoods together, and folks talk to each other more than they ever have.”

The Little Free Library Book has pictures galore for inspiration, how-to instructions for those looking to start their own LFL, and first hand experiences from Aldrich herself, as well as from founder Todd Bol, and from LFL stewards around the world (yes, world!). The format of the book, with it’s combined use of Aldrich’s narrative, first-hand testimonials, how-to’s, and photos, makes me think about this new generation of nonfiction books. I’ve noticed a trend that this type of nonfiction intermingles the typical nonfiction prose with photos, how-to blurbs, and additional nuggets. It makes books like this easy to engage with. (Yet, part of me wonders, is this what our society of short attention spans is turning to? I’m not saying this as a criticism; I truly loved The Little Free Library Book. But it is an interesting question to ponder.)

The great thing about these LFLs is that people are encouraged to make them their own. Some people use them for seed exchanges with their neighbors, in addition to book sharing. Others use them to distribute their own poetry or comics, or ask for passers-by to write their own poems and leave them for someone else. There are even some that turn the roofs of their LFLs into a garden itself. The possibilities are endless!

Because these LFL give so much freedom to their stewards for creation, the LFLs themselves become pieces of art. LFL stewards have used recycled material in making their libraries, in addition to bike parts, buttons, flower gardens, old suitcases, and pinball machines. Some folks have even built LFLs with their neighbors, a true piece of community art. (But don’t worry for those of you who don’t feel the need to create a work of art from scratch: you can buy LFLs online, or ask others to make them for you, too.)

The libraries are meant to encourage literacy, and many of them specifically cater to children, such as the LFL of Nancy Vogl and David Strange of Traverse City, Michigan:

“We built our Little Free Library, specifically for children only, as a way to reinforce the importance of reading,” Vogl says. “We see way too many young people with their heads down looking at electronic devices, and we don’t want them to lose the magic of holding a book in their hands.”

Other low-income communities are building little free libraries as a way for kids to have access to books. Sure, literacy is a lofty goal, but its one that LFLs aren’t afraid to tackle head-on in their own small but significant way, one book at a time.

Yet others have different goals, such as to put poetry in the streets (and off the lofty pedestal people tend to put it on). Poet Billy Collins is even quoted in the book on this subject:

“I’m all for poetry in public places, poetry released from the confines of the library and the classroom, poetry that enters the mainstream of American life. […]

The Little Free Library is a terrific example of placing books—poetry included—within reach of people in the course of their everyday lives. […] Here’s hoping we bump into literature when we turn the next corner—before we have time to resist!”

What struck me the most about this little grassroots literacy campaign is its humble yet undeniable ability to build community within a city block (and beyond, in many cases). In a world where it’s perfectly acceptable to not know every person on your block, creating something to be shared with your fellow neighbors is something special. In my graduate school classes on creative communities, we talk about a community’s “bump factor”, aka, how often people in that community are apt to “bump into” other people and discuss, share, engage. If a community’s bump factor is high, it’s more likely to be a creative community with a strong cultural identity. Now, the bump factor is just one of many factors that play into community building, but it’s one that the Little Free Library does well.

Two LFL stewards, Ellen and Col Cseke of Canada, describes a surprising “bump” encounter they’ve had because of their LFL:

Late one night, Ellen was standing outside the front door looking for her keys. From behind her she heard a gruff voice calling, “Hey, hey you, excuse me.” She saw a rather rough-looking guy standing on the sidewalk and nervousness went through her body; it was dark and no one else was out. Then the gentleman asked, “Hey, I have a ton of books—if the Library is too full, can I leave a box beside it with the extras that don’t fit?”

This element of the unexpected connection with someone you might typically not have interacted with voluntarily is just one part of the magic that is a LFL.

Another unique facet of LFL that caught my attention was their interactivity, and how they encourage people to cross boundaries (you literally have to step over a boundary and into someone else’s yard to check out a LFL). This crossing of boundaries not only increases the chance bump factor, but also creates connections, and encourages participants to get to know each other (as in, who left that book?).

I’ll close with a rallying cry as a LFL-convert: In the name of community building, boundary crossing, and grassroots literacy for the people, check out the next Little Free Library you come across. And hey, maybe like me, you’ll even be tempted to build one for your own community. Happy reading, and sharing, folks.

Do you have a Little Free Library, and if so, what have some of your most interesting experiences with it been? Can you think of other literacy campaigns that pull together communities like this?


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