April 24, 2018

Little Free Libraries | Office Hours

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.

Librarian involvement

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.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens (mstephens7@mac.com) is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA



  1. Michael,

    Thanks for this article about the little free libraries. In Syracuse (NY), we embarked on our own Little Free Libraries project in August 2011, which started with a tweet. Quickly we gathered a team of students and faculty from the LIS program at Syracuse University, students and faculty from the Visual and Performing Arts program at Syracuse University, staff from the Near Westside Initiative, and community members from the Near Westside where we planned on installing little free libraries.

    In October, this large group met on a Saturday to workshop everything about the LFLs. After that, the design students worked on the design and the LIS students worked on defining the collection. (BTW I should note that we have had a number of community organizations participate including the Onondaga County Library System and ProLiteracy.) Our first LFL was launched with on Feb. 3 on Gifford St. We hosted a party a few doors down, where we received more donations, talked to the media, and engaged in conversations about what the LFLs can be. Before the evening was over, we had to refill the LFL twice!

    Our first LFL went through over 150 books in the first month. Since then, we have installed two more on the Near Westside. We have also hosted a book drive for the LFLs and received more than 2000 books from the wider Syracuse community, including donations from children at a local elementary school. Our LIS students helped with that effort.

    This summer, an LIS student did her internship with the LFL project. Her task was to create documentation for the project that others could use, including a collection development policy. Because many people will be involved in the collection, including each LFLs caretaker, we wanted to create documentation that would be helpful to everyone.

    We know from the caretakers and others who interact with the LFLs that they have been well received. Books do get borrowed quickly and we have learned that truly every book has its reader, no matter the book. People in the community truly see these as an asset. (Yes, some books are returned and community members are contributing their own books directly into the LFLs.)

    Will we install more? Not immediately. We want to get these firmly rooted in the community and then discuss other locations, different designs, etc. We are definitely, though, going to do another book drive next spring (2013). And I should mention that this fall, we will purchase books for the LFLs from cash donations we’ve received from across the country for the project.

    For more on our Library Free Libraries project, please go to http://littlelibraries.syr.edu/ Perhaps others can learn from what we have done – and from what others have done – and create their own!

    • I am not sure what it means by “went through 150 books in the first month.” I realize the LFL system is not a perfect system, but were not the reading participants in Syracuse encouraged to Return A Book as well as to Take A Book? Perhaps the goal in this case was to send out as many books as possible out into the community – which is of course admirable in itself – but is not quite the goal of LFLs, as least as far as I can tell.

  2. Michael Stephens says:

    Thanks Jill!

    Our LFL is on Facebook here: http://www.facebook.com/LittleFreeLibraryTC

  3. Michael Stephens says:

    Ginger – I never expect all the books to come back. the bookmark we put in them states: “Take a book. If you see something you would like to read, take it. Look inside and see
    who gave it; who else has read it. Share it. Return it to any LFL or pass it on to a friend.
    Give books. Leave notes in them. Be a friend of all libraries by helping any way you can.
    Pay it Forward!” This was suppled be the good folks at LFL.

    • Mary Kucksdorf says:

      Our lake association wants to start a little library and I volunteered to be the caretaker. Any advice would be appreciated. How long do you keep books that don’t get borrowed? What kind of a mix is the ideal, ie popular, ya, children, nonfiction, etc.? Do you keep any records on donated books? Thanks, mary kucksdorf

  4. Ginger, we don’t expect the books that we place in the little free libraries to be returned. And we know that the original little free libraries in Wisconsin distribute more books than are returned. We see this as a way of getting books out into the neighborhood without overdue notices, fines, exchange of money, etc. Yes, we hope that books will be returned and, as I said, some have. But we fully realize that many books will find permanent homes. In fact, two books that I donate to the LFL were books that that I knew would not be returned (two copies of “Our Bodies Ourselves”). Those are books that I knew would find permanent homes.

  5. Regina Clinton says:

    Great article! I too am a LFL steward in Jamesville, NY. Yes, it is great to hear voices around the library as people come to discover it for the first time or revisit to select a new book. II’d love it if more little libraries would pop up in our area.

  6. Regina, where in Jamesville (address or nearest corner)? I’d like to make people aware of its location.

  7. For digital addon to lfl’s- how about solar powered battery pack for one of Jason Griffey’s libraryboxes? Fun project for a student.

  8. Polly, I like that idea! I believe that our students (SU iSchool) are going to be building a library box this fall and I’ll pass along the idea. BTW have you heard of “dead drops” (deaddrops.com)? It might be possible to build one of those in too.

  9. I love this idea but don’t know that it would work here where we have several months straight of monsoonal rain. Maybe an idea for our Dry Season…will have to think on it. Thanks for the story.

  10. Michael Stephens says:


  11. Ah, snow….never thought of that…don’t see it much in the tropics :-) Okay so we could just offer it for half the year…that might work.

  12. Catherine Arnott Smith says:

    I definitely discuss LFLs (which are big here in Madison) in my library school classes, but it’s as a controversial topic. I have very mixed feelings about them, personally, and turns out my students do too. My mixed feelings acquired supporting data when I visited our county fair this summer and saw a poster done by a local 4H group. The following quote is taken directly from the 4H group’s poster [typos verbatim]

    “Our town, [NAME OF TOWN REMOVED TO MAINTAIN PRIVACY] had been trying for some years to get a community library and unfortunately were unable to acquire the necessary support and funds to build such building. So in an effort to help out the town we’re placing the Library along with other groups around our town instead of having to pay for a rather expensive building project.”

    Because, of course, as we all know, libraries are expensive buildings with print books in them.

    • Catherine,

      Obviously that town needs help advocating for a library. Could your students (either as part of a class or as a volunteer effort) work with members of that community on building awareness about the services that a library could provide? Perhaps conducting grass roots advocacy efforts? Undoubtedly students could take what they are learning in the classroom and apply it to a real world situation. I would hope that students would see this as a way of having a real impact while still in school.

      We all know that having books (reading material) in the home is important in terms of literacy. Personally, I don’t care if those books come from a book store, a library, a giveaway or a little free library. I’m just pleased that our little libraries are getting books in the hands of people who want to read them. And truly it has been “every books it’s reader.”

    • Michael Stephens says:

      Jill – What great suggestions for the folks in that county. Maybe their excitement about LFLs could be leveraged into something more.

      Catherine – I would hope you and your students that share the mixed feelings someday get to experience the excitement that planning, building and installing a LFL can offer. We just attended the dedication of the third LFL here in Traverse City, MI and it was so nice to see the neighborhood come out, young and old alike. Two of the organizers are employees at the local public library and they were very excited to be sharing books and other materials to promote literacy and reading for fun on their street.

  13. Michael,

    This is exactly the sort of thing that LibraryBox is made for (thanks for the mention, Polly!). I’ve got a whole section on the LibraryBox site about using alternative power, mainly solar, although there’s no reason it couldn’t be adapted to include wind or water. http://librarybox.us/hardware.html

    I would love to see some students tackle a free-standing off-the-grid installation somewhere!

  14. Michael,

    I had the extraordinary fortune yesterday to meet Rick Brooks, one of the co-founders of the LFL movement. His visit to Syracuse coincided with a media interview that I was giving, so he tagged along! You can read/view the news report on the LFLs at http://centralny.ynn.com/content/601700/little-free-libraries-grow-in-popularity/

    He had some very positive stories to tell about how LFLs have joined people together in communities, created conversations, and even created a desire for real library services. Perhaps you should reach out to him and do a follow-up piece?

    BTW he knows about yours! It brought a smile to his face.

  15. Jill – this is a great quote from Brooks:

    “People say, ‘I met more people in the past three weeks, than I have met in 25 years because of a little library where they share their favorite books.’”

    :-) We meet neighbors as well as those who rent cottages nearby every week.