One of the highlights of my summer break had nothing to do with digital initiatives, social media, connected learning, or blogging. With friends in our neighborhood on Spider Lake, just outside Traverse City, MI, we built and opened a little free library (LFL). Guided by a group based in Wisconsin, little libraries are popping up all over the United States and the world in the form of free-standing dollhouse-sized book repositories. [Find out more at the LFL website, www.littlefreelibrary.org.]
For the rest of the summer, books came and went from the little library. My rusty collection development skills were put into play as I sorted through donations from neighbors and purchases from thrift stores. We used a custom-made stamp to associate each item with our library, and stickers created from a template from LFL provide the simple rules: Take a book, return a book.
The mission of the group includes “to promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide” and “to build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity, and wisdom across generations.”
Both of these have been evident since we dedicated our own little library on July 21. Impromptu story times have occurred in our garden, excited voices from some of our local moms have carried to my ears across the lake from an ad hoc floating book group: “It’s in the little library, don’t miss it.”
This experience has reminded me of some things that too easily slip away when we spend so much time on the digital.
Our enduring values
Our core values are alive and well in the LFL movement, even though many (if not most) of the LFL facilities are built and stewarded by people who are not librarians. They are born out of interest in the movement and a love of books and reading. The values that we teach in library school are inherent in the process.
An LFL steward informally agrees to care for the library and its collection in an effort to serve the reading public—most probably a few blocks of a neighborhood, or in our case a circular road with cottages and homes along the lake. I would argue most LFL stewards have already committed to promoting literacy and learning.
Big little library news
Scanning the recent news articles about the LFL movement reveals something else, too. More often than not, those interviewed acknowledge the sense of community and collegiality that grow up around the little libraries. From a Los Angeles Times piece on a local LFL: “It has turned strangers into friends and a sometimes impersonal neighborhood into a community. It has become a mini–town square….” This gets to the heart of what many of us in libraries know: knowledge shared within a framework of caring and familiarity can strengthen communities.
Evidence of caring is present in the knowledge that few LFLs have been vandalized. Part of the packet a steward receives when registering an LFL includes a document outlining how to prevent vandalism. One hint: “Get as many people as possible to know they are a part of the success of the Little Free Library. It is a gift to all; not a private possession.” So simple, so true.
Many librarians across the country have been involved with placing LFLs in their library neighborhoods. We need even more involvement on that level. We can take a good example from my own home library, Traverse Area District Library (TADL) in northern Michigan. TADL placed the first LFL in our area and promotes the movement on its website, complete with plans, photos, and hints for builders. Let’s go further and host LFL nights and afternoons, offering access to plans, materials, and documentation. Consider it a new/old form of outreach that might just create some new connections with neighborhoods in your community.
LFLs in coursework
Schools of library and information science (LIS) could play a role as well. Include the movement in your introductory courses. Imagine a class that pairs a student with a neighborhood to help build, stock, and steward an LFL for a semester. Or industrious techie students might help make the LFL leap to the virtual—the digital LFL. In some way, Project Gutenberg is already doing this, but it’s big and impersonal. How can we create small, personal, highly localized (local needs, local wants) digital LFLs? Perhaps LIS students can figure it out.
If you’re looking for an exciting, community-focused project, check out LFLs. Get your library interested in sponsoring one or more LFLs or offer programming to help neighborhoods. If you’re working in a mostly digital environment, consider stewarding your own LFL in your neighborhood. The benefits and rewards will recharge you.