Little free libraries: Take a book, leave a book

Borrowing a page from residents in St. Paul, Minn., Hannah Lane-Davies has begun a movement in Kalamazoo that relies on minimal investment with priceless returns.
Hannah, with help from her parents Elizabeth and Aaron and twin brother Hayden, built a Little Free Library for about $50 this past summer and has kept it stocked with books--some which are returned and some which have found good homes elsewhere. Her Little Free Library is number 3,761 in the United States.
The concept is simple, yet powerful. Construct a box out of wood or other materials, attach it to a post and fill it with books which people may take and return or keep. The boxes almost always resemble a miniature house and frequently catch the eye of the casual observer. In Hannah’s case, it also has lead to discussions with local nonprofits such as the Kalamazoo Literacy Council and Kalamazoo Valley Habitat for Humanity.
"I love reading and I thought it was such a cool idea and that it would be so great to have them in Kalamazoo," Hannah says. "There’s not a lot of things today that don’t have strings attached. This promotes literacy and by not selling the books there’s more of a sense of equality."
However, Hannah says she thinks the concept of getting something for nothing is a notion that has taken some getting used to for individuals who patronize Little Free Libraries. Those who return the books are encouraged to write their name and leave a comment or two--either in the book or on paper--if they’re so inclined.
"I think people are shocked that someone would write on a book," Elizabeth says. "People in our neighborhood have written their name and address and other people have come back to see who else has read it. It’s like having a virtual book club."
Those who build and maintain Little Free Libraries become stewards and stock the box with their own books or books that are donated. On a recent afternoon, Elizabeth found a stack of books in a paper bag near the family’s LFL. Among the titles were "Like Water for Elephants" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
Hannah, 14, and her mom literally ran into a Little Free Library while jogging through a St. Paul neighborhood last year where they were staying with friends. Like many passersby who see the library boxes, they were intrigued and a little hesitant to walk up and open it.
"We said to each other--well let’s check it out," Elizabeth says. "It was in someone’s front yard and we cautiously approached it."
In further travels around the neighborhood they saw at least three more and knew that they were onto something--something that they could easily replicate back in their own hometown. In doing their research, they discovered that the first Little Free Library in Michigan is in Traverse City and Flint also is home to at least three.
"But, there weren’t any in Southwest Michigan and we thought we could do it," Elizabeth says.
The seeds of the Little Free Library movement were planted by Todd Bol, a Wisconsin resident, who installed the first library as a simple tribute to his mother, a teacher and bibliophile. His neighbors loved it and began dropping by so often that his lawn became a gathering spot. Then a friend in Madison put out some similar boxes and got the same reaction and before Bol knew it, more home-crafted libraries began popping up around Wisconsin's capital.
Three years later, the whimsical boxes are a global sensation. They number in the thousands and have spread to at least 36 countries, in a testimonial to the power of a good idea, the simple allure of a book and the wildfire of the internet, Bol says.
"For every one LFL that is registered with us, there are two or three that we don’t know about," says Megan Hanson, Library Development specialist with Little Free Libraries, which became an official nonprofit organization in 2009.
Hanson says the movement has the largest presence in St. Paul and Madison, adding that it is definitely picking up on the East and West coasts of the United States.
"So much of it is about sharing the books and encouraging literacy," Hanson says. "A lot of people seem to have an intense emotional reaction and an intense personal love of books and wanting to share them."
"It's weird to be an international phenomenon," says Bol, a former international business consultant who finds himself at the head of what has become the Little Free Libraries organization. The book-sharing boxes are being adopted by a growing number of groups as a way of promoting literacy in inner cities and underdeveloped countries.
Bol, his Madison friend Rick Brooks, and helpers, run the project from a funky workshop with a weathered wood facade in an otherwise nondescript concrete industrial building outside Hudson, a riverside community of 12,000 about 20 miles east of downtown St. Paul. They build wooden book boxes in a variety of styles, ranging from basic to a miniature British-style phone booth, and offer them for sale on the group's website, which also offers plans for building your own. Sizes vary. The essential traits are that they are eye-catching and protect the books from the weather.
It is the simplicity that the Lane-Davies of Kalamazoo found so appealing. Hannah says she had a goal of getting 10 other people to build and be stewards of their own Little Free Libraries. That goal has been met and surpassed with individuals contacting her and her family on a regular basis to see how they can get involved. 
At least four families will install Little Free Libraries once the ground thaws, among them is Joy Huitema, who lives in the Rudgate development in Texas Township. Huitema has been friends with the Lane-Davies’ for 13 years. She learned about Hannah’s efforts and knew this was something she and her family could do in their neighborhood where the houses are close to each other and residents frequently walk or run.
"I love to read and so do my kids and we thought it would be great to bring something like this to our neighborhood," she says. "You’re just immediately drawn to it and when you realize what’s in there is a free gift, it’s such a cool idea."
An interior designer, Huitema says the size and "quaint" look of the Little Free Libraries is part of the appeal for her. While there are instructions for a basic design on the LFL website, many people choose to customize the boxes to reflect their personality.
"I’m thinking of putting on a stainless steel roof," Huitema says.
A month or two ago the Lane-Davies cut out the parts and pieces for 15 libraries. Hannah says it takes between four and six hours to construct a library. Residents of Friendship Village who are skilled in woodworking have volunteered to help in the construction process.
"We felt it was important to be part of the building process," Hannah says.
The contents of each Little Free Library are up to the discretion of each steward. Huitema’s LFL will be a reflection of her family--14-year-old twins and an 11-year-old, in addition to her and her husband.
Some LFL stewards have themed libraries. The Lane-Davies have chosen to have books and magazines for all age groups and borrowers will likely find upwards of 50 publications in the library box at any given time.
"Because we know that kids are welcome to stop by we wouldn’t leave Shades of Grey in there," Elizabeth says.
What passersby will find are opportunities to connect and be a part of something much bigger than themselves, and this, Hannah says, is really what she hopes to accomplish.
To learn more about Little Free Libraries visit their website.  
Jane C. Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. 
Photos by Erik Holladay.  
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