Little Free Libraries Are Making a Big Impression, One Book at a Time

By Annette Newcomb | Photography by Holly Leitner

In a world full of electronic gadgets and a generation glued to their smartphones, an interesting phenomenon is taking place. Little Free Libraries are popping up everywhere and they’re playing a huge part in bringing neighborhoods and communities together, promoting literacy and helping many rediscover their love of reading books — not e-books mind you, but actual printed tomes.

Little Free Libraries have struck a chord with book lovers of all ages. These small weatherproof boxes, about the size of a dollhouse, are constructed of various materials and decorated in many different ways. Little Free Libraries have been constructed to look like an English phone booth, a cottage, a storefront, birdhouses, boats, schools and more. They all have Plexiglas windows, a weather tight door and many times are painted in playful, eye-catching colors. They are normally placed in a high traffic area, such as in front of a store, in a park or in residential area in front of homes. The idea is to take a book or leave a book. You don’t have to return the book unless you choose to. There is nothing to fill out, or sign; Little Free Libraries are completely free book exchanges.

The first Little Free Library was constructed in Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2009, by Todd Bol, who built a small replica of a one-room schoolhouse as a tribute to his mother, a former schoolteacher. He filled it with books and placed it in his front yard with a sign that said, “Free Books.” He built several more and gave them away. Then Rick Brooks, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison saw Bol’s project and the two discovered they could achieve a wide variety of goals for the common good. Bol brought his expertise as a craftsman and Brooks, a youth and community development educator, saw this as an opportunity to create a social marketing tool to bring students and communities together. Both agreed the key strategy for the project must be for the “promotion of reading for children, literacy for adults and libraries around the world.”

Bol and Brooks set a goal to launch 2,510 Little Free Libraries, the same number of libraries established by famed philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The pair also drew inspiration from Miss Lutie Stearns, a founding member of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, which distributed books to 1,400 locations in Wisconsin between 1895 and 1914, through its traveling little libraries program.

In 2011 nearly 400 Little Free Libraries had popped up across the nation. Media attention focused on the project and momentum grew. In 2012 the Little Free Library was established as a nonprofit corporation and by January 2014, an astounding 15,000 Little Free Libraries were established, with thousands more in the works.

East Troy School District Instructional Media Center Director Tami Bartoli says she was mobbed the first day she stocked the Little Free Library in front of Doubek Elementary School last school year. “I was loading books into it and I was immediately surrounded by students who wanted a book. As a librarian, to see children swarming to get a book was so exciting!”

Bartoli says their Little Free Library was born out of necessity. “We had boxes full of donated books and also books that were cycled out of circulation from the school library.”

“As a librarian I was aware of the Little Free Libraries and I approached Mark Beilman, the technical education teacher for help. Beilman and former ETHS student Ben Carslon created a very simple design for the Doubek Elementary School Little Free Library, and Ryan Holle and his agriculture/landscape class installed the library just outside the front door of the school and landscaped around it.

“Our long term goal is to place one Little Free Library in front of all of our schools, that way we can make sure age-appropriate books are located at each one, making them accessible to all our students and their families,” Bartoli says.

Bartoli says she is thrilled with the idea that books will be read over and over again. “This is a great way to share books and also to donate books. My third-grader is the daughter of a librarian and she has many books. When we moved I went through them and pulled out the ones that had no sentimental ties. Those are the ones I donated. It’s a great way for parents to share books their children have outgrown,” she says.

The 2013 graduating class of Delavan-Darien High School donated a Little Free Library to their district, adorned with a plaque that reads, “Be a Voice, Not an Echo.” After some alterations to make it weatherproof, courtesy of the DDHS General Woods teacher Mike Fellina and his class, the Little Free Library is now located in front of the district’s administration center on Beloit Street.

In Lake Geneva, a Little Free Library  is located in front of the Lake Geneva Chamber of Commerce office on Wrigley Drive. The project was spearheaded by Badger High School’s Student Leadership Group and constructed by Ernie Oswald’s shop class.

City of Lake Geneva Building and Zoning Administrator Ken Robers says no permits are needed to erect a Little Free Library in your front yard. “They aren’t considered an auxiliary building and they aren’t very big. You have to make sure it’s on private property, not blocking pedestrian traffic. The only reason the city would step in is if it fell into disrepair and became an eyesore, he said.” Remember to call your own municipality before moving forward.

The person who registers the Little Free Library becomes its steward and is issued a Charter Number plaque to place on the Little Free Library.

Here are the locations of more area Little Free Libraries that are registered at www.littlefreelibrary.org:

  • Burlington: 408 Robins Run; N6026 Lyons Road
  • Elkhorn: N6522 Aspen Road; N6122 Spruce Drive
  • Whitewater: St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 146 S. Church Street; La Grange United Methodist Church, N8548 County Highway H; N8096 Hi-Lo Road; 1560 W. Wildwood Road; 121 West Center Street/Studio 84; 1134 W. Walworth Ave.
  • Lake Geneva: 406 Spring St.

The Little Free Library website explains the process of establishing and registering your own Little Free Library. There are design ideas and kits you can order. An alphabetical list of libraries is available on the site. You can also post the address of your library, the GPS coordinates and include a narrative about why you established it.

Like the stories they house, how you create your Little Free Library is limited only by your own imagination.

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