Little Free Libraries: Connecting neighborhoods book by book

Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti both have robust public library systems, but over the past five years residents have enthusiastically adopted a much smaller-scale approach to sharing literature.

The Little Free Library (LFL) movement, started in Wisconsin in 2009, encouraging homeowners to erect small structures –often not much bigger than a large birdhouse– near their sidewalk or street, and fill it with books. The idea is that passersby not only grab something new to read and return it when they're done, but also contribute books themselves, if they've got some to spare. Aside for the potential for increased literacy, these Little Free Libraries would become a place where neighbors would be encouraged to interact.

Like most community concepts in the Internet age, the LFL movement has caught on worldwide, with Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti representing quite well for themselves. Seven local libraries are registered on the official LFL map, and there are even more unregistered. ArborWiki counts 12 in Ann Arbor alone. 

Jeff Clark started one of the area's newest LFLs on the Water Street Commons in Ypsi. The Water Street LFL is larger than most, a walk-in structure that includes a built-in table and bench. Clark was originally inspired by the People's Library that was erected at Occupy Wall Street, also a larger-scale version of the LFL idea. He says he's moved by "acts of public giving, sharing and borrowing."

"They are useful models for a kind of activity that, if practiced by many—rather than a handful—of people, could transform social life," Clark says. "On a smaller scale, each Little Free Library that pops up feels like an invitation to engage one's neighbors, and because it's a discrete engagement, I think it must feel to many like a safe and easy first step to take into the arenas of community service, exchange, and the gift economy.

While Clark's motivations are rooted in social and political change, some LFL proprietors have simpler reasons for getting involved. June Anderson maintains an LFL near Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor. She became fascinated with the LFL concept when she read about it three years ago.

"I'm 97 years old," Anderson says. "I wanted to get rid of my stuff."

Anderson's daughter and son-in-law built her "Book Barn" for her, and she's since successfully passed much of her collection into new hands. 

"You get to talk with the people when they come by and it's fun," she says. "It's a friendly thing."

For some LFL owners, disappearing books can be a challenge. Beverly Buck maintains a LFL on the south side of Ypsi. She says she had problems with passersby stealing the books and reselling them at used bookstores. The issue almost caused her to give up on her LFL, but she says two neighborhood "angels" chipped in with some donations of their own to keep it going. Although she now rubber-stamps all books to deter theft, she says kids who don't understand the library concept still take books for good sometimes. Still, her attitude is evolving.

"I think a lot of books ended up going to Detroit, and that's okay," Buck says. "You know what? You can't steal something that's free. No matter where the book lands, I don't care if they live here or live there or live anywhere. It's in their hands."

Buck says she started her LFL to "give [people] dreams," as books did for her when she was growing up in a family with few financial resources. For her, the library has become a simple but fulfilling way to improve her community.

"It's fun to see [kids] sitting on their front porch reading the books in the summertime," she says. "We've had a lot of neighbors just walking by and taking a book here and there. It's been a really great conversation piece."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate and Metromode.

All photos by Drake Carr and Maegan Pierson

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