Large Need, Small Design
Cofounder and Executive Director, Little Free Library Ltd.; Founder and CEO, Care Forth, Inc.
Little Free Library, Ltd., Hudson, WI
BS, University of Wisconsin–River Falls, 1979
Cofounder, Little Free Library Ltd.; Outreach Program Manager in Continuing Studies, University of Wisconsin-MadisonLittle Free Library, Ltd., Hudson, WI
BA, Beloit College, WI, 1969
Todd & Rick
Photo by Ron Wurzer/Getty Images for Library Journal
Todd Bol (l.) and Rick Brooks aren’t architects or librarians. Yet they’ve had a hand in building over 5,000 “libraries”—free book exchanges—since 2009 in 36 countries. Each is a mini–book distribution box that operates on the honor system (take a book, return a book) and holds only a few titles at a time, but Brooks and Bol estimate that they’ve cumulatively housed 1.65 million donated and borrowed books so far.
Little Free Libraries (LFL) offers builder’s plans, as well as selling finished models for the not-so-crafty. It also provides a Steward’s Kit for the volunteers who keep the little libraries running smoothly. LFL has donated nearly 100 little libraries, too, and partnered with Books for Africa to provide little libraries with containers of books. (For an LFL “ambassador,” see Lisa Lopez, p. 45.)
Originally founded as a program of Wisconsin Partners for SustainAbility, in 2012 LFL became incorporated as a nonprofit. Bol and Brooks had met in 2009 at a workshop Brooks taught on the local economy through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is outreach program manager in continuing studies. Bol was at loose ends. His background is in international business development, he says, but having recently sold a business that put nurses through graduate school, he was bound by a noncompete clause. So he asked himself, “What else can I do? That’s how this started,” he says. “I tell people that I started a nonprofit by accident.” Bol built the first LFL in the form of a one-room schoolhouse and put it in his own front yard.
Brooks, meanwhile, had previous library experience, helping to support village libraries in Sri Lanka via training, books, strategic advice, and volunteer resources and directing university students to collect books for a school in Mexico. He also had extensive experience doing community organizing and working with both businesses and governmental agencies. Bol brought carpentry and business skills to the workbench, finding manufacturing help, supplies, and recycled materials to build the first LFLs. He troubleshoots questions on building and maintaining LFLs, while Brooks handles contacts with media, academic, and nonprofit colleagues, plus potential sponsors.
In addition to individual donations, in-kind help, and small grants, LFL is supported by a two-year, $70,000 grant from AARP and is “building more strategic partnerships.” Funds have been spent mostly on supplies, part-time wages, storage units, and shipping. Only in the past few months have Brooks and Bol been able to pay themselves any kind of salary, though Brooks hopes to be able to devote himself to LFL full time in a year or two.
Though there’s no requirement that public libraries be involved, and many LFL stewards are simply book lovers, LFL says “this entire program has been designed with Friends of Libraries in mind. Little Libraries offer creative and upbeat outreach tools to extend the reach of your public library to parts of your community that might not otherwise use it. Each Little Library is like its own billboard.” And Bol says, “Libraries are pretty much our biggest customers.”