What Are Little Free Libraries? Five Things To Know

Mike Ramsey
September 25, 2018 - 10:30 am

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Book stores are increasingly rare in this age of Amazon, but perhaps they survive in small form as Little Free Libraries.

Maybe you've seen these book-sharing boxes in the Chicago region, usually mounted on a post and with a written invitation to take a book or share one.

What's it all about? Here are five things that may help explain this cultural phenomenon:

1. Former middle-school teacher Todd Bol, 62, founded the program less than a decade ago in Hudson, Wisconsin. His not-for-profit Little Free Library organization now reaches across the globe (in 88 countries) and hit a significant benchmark over the summer by dedicating its 75,000th outpost.

"What we're about is connecting people and communities and emphasizing the importance of reading," Bol said in a recent phone interview. "If we're going to maintain our democracy, we really have to have an educated population that knows how to critically think and be able to tell what's right, wrong and true."

2. Volunteers who sponsor a book-sharing box and help curate its contents are called "stewards."

Richard Murray placed his Little Birchwood Library, as he calls it, on a corner of his Wilmette lawn four years ago. Since then, he said, about 1,000 books have "passed through," into the hands of adults and children. 

"It's hard to describe how well people respond to this and participate in it and really enjoy it," Murray, an education funding consultant, says. "I don't think books are dead -- not from what I'm seeing with this."

3. The Little Free Library organization sells pre-built libraries and ready-to-assemble kits, but many stewards choose to make their own.

Vicki Byard's library, on the North Side of Chicago, was a gift made by her mother and her mother's boyfriend. It's painted green and has a punched-tin roof.

"It has special meaning, sentimentally, for me," says Byard, a professor of English and writing at Northeastern Illinois University.

4. Not everyone has a house with a lawn or lives in a traditional neighborhood. The Little Free Library organization has been developing alternatives to get free books to other places. These include mobile libraries and book-sharing boxes that can hang on the outside of an apartment door.

"We have a saying, 'Wherever people shall gather there shall be books,'" Bol, the founder, said.

5. Stewards stock the libraries themselves or rely on donations to generate an inventory. Even though they're called "libraries," the books taken from a Little Free Library do not have to be returned.

"Obviously, with most Little Free Libraries, there's more take than give, but we still manage to keep things rolling," says Toby Gibson, reference and circulation manager at Rush University Medical Center's academic library. 

The Little Free Library he helped install on the campus is for anyone: patients, their family members, hospital staff or medical students looking for a break from textbooks. The library closes overnight, but there is a smaller book repository in the main hallway, which is open 24/7.