Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Little Free Libraries are Bad Because We Don’t Like Them

You might think the Little Free Library movement would be about an innocuous a subject as one can find related to books. That’s because you’re not aware that they’re “neoliberal politics at street level,” at least according to the “radical” Canadian librarians interviewed in this article sent in by Kind Reader.

They also wrote a whole article about this in the Journal of Radical Librarianship, if you just can’t get enough of the subject.

Fortunately, there aren’t any serious library problems in Canada or anywhere else that might take up the attention of serious people. It’s not like school libraries are dying, public library funding is often under attack, or anything like that.

Thus, it’s really, really important to focus our attacks on boxes people put in their front yards so neighbors can exchange books, or not, depending on whatever they feel like doing. The horror!

It’s hard to know where to start here, so let’s just look at some representative quotations. For example:

“There was something that kind of irked me about the title…. As a librarian, my gut reaction to that was, ‘You know what else is a free library? A regular library.’”

That’s pretty clever. A regular library is indeed free. But you know what else isn’t little? A regular library! No, wait, that’s not as funny. Never mind.

Anyway, that would be a pithy little line if it wasn’t undermined later in the article.

“Schmidt also challenged the suggestion that Little Free Libraries are truly “free.” She says that she paid more than $600 (Canadian) for a Little Free Library for research purposes. (“I wanted to have the Full Monty Little Free Library experience,” she says.)”

I’m just hoping that doesn’t mean her Little Free Library leaves the books completely, um, exposed.

So the same librarian who is pointing out that “regular” libraries are “free” is also pointing out that “Little Free Libraries” aren’t really free? There seems to be some confusion here about how libraries and money works.

The weasel word in this case is “free.” No libraries are free. Somebody has to pay for them.

In the case of public libraries, that somebody is the public through taxes. In the case of Little Free Libraries it’s individual people who aren’t compelled through the law to do this. They freely, one might say, build these libraries.

But that’s still bad, because you know who can build these libraries? People with some money to spend on them!

Their analysis shows that Little Free Libraries predominantly appear in medium- to high-income neighborhoods in Toronto (an effect that is less pronounced in Calgary, a wealthier city). 

It might be easy to just respond, “and?” But their discoveries about Little Free Libraries in Toronto don’t seem to mean much. Even in that quote, the effect is already less pronounced in Calgary.

That’s out of “over 50,000 registered Little Free Library book exchanges in all 50 U.S. states and over 70 countries around the world.” Does this count as a representative sample? Apparently, even the authors don’t think so.

Despite the fact that we’ve just done a case study of two Canadian cities that are probably not entirely representative of the locations of Little Free Libraries across the world, they did raise and confirm our suspicions toward the organization.

So even one of the authors of the study admits it’s probably not representative of Little Free Library locations in general, but it “raises and confirms suspicions”? How can evidence that is admittedly not representative confirm any suspicions, except the suspicion that one needs more evidence to come to any conclusions? That’s when it’s time to remember this is library science, not real science.

Is the problem “performative community enhancement,” whatever that is?

We submit that these data reinforce the notion that [Little Free Libraries] are examples of performative community enhancement, driven more so by the desire to showcase one’s passion for books and education than a genuine desire to help the community in a meaningful way.

Showcasing one’s passion for books and education is apparently a terrible thing when it’s not motivated by the reasons that other people believe are appropriate. How dare they showcase their passion for books and education, the monsters.

This kind of “branded philanthropy” serves as a vehicle for virtue-signaling by the homeowners who install Little Free Libraries in their front yards…. They’re particularly ubiquitous in hyper-educated, affluent, crunchy blue enclaves across the country—your Ithacas, Berkeleys, and Takoma Parks, where residents tend to wear their shabby progressivism on their sleeves.

And what would be the opposite of “shabby progressivism”? Would it be the sort of progressivism that some librarians wear all shiny and polished on their sleeves so the whole world can know how good they are maybe? Or maybe the “virtue signaling” of radical librarians publishing attacks on people minding their own business in order to show how superior they are to people who don’t agree with them.

Surely there must be some point other than that people with a couple hundred dollars, some time to build a wooden box and put it on a pole, and a love of books, are bad people who aren’t shinily progressive like our radical librarians?

Is there a danger to public libraries maybe?

“What does it mean that this is the way in which ‘library services’ are being presented to community members?” asks one of the librarians.

Is there anyone in the entire world who has ever seen a Little Free Library and confused it with “library services”?

“I wouldn’t go down hard and say that Little Free Libraries harm public libraries,” says the other librarian. So what’s the problem, and why should actual librarians working in real libraries care about these little boxes of cast off books?

There must be something else here to justify 29 pages attacking the Little Free Library movement. Maybe it’s inequality.

“I don’t think we can definitively say that they [don’t] reduce inequality,” Schmidt says. “I just don’t think they can say they reduce inequality, either.”

That’s a roundabout way of saying we have no evidence one way or the other, but why the assumption that Little Free Libraries should exist to reduce inequality?

As far as I can tell, there are two bases for this attack, one relating to a claim by the Little Free Library corporation itself, and one related to the author’s wishes about the world.

The scholarly article acknowledges that the Little Free Library corporation claims to water “book deserts,” which is sort of a way to end one type of inequality. The article concludes that claim is false, but it’s based on a study of ONLY Toronto and Calgary, as we’ve seen.

Why just them? “Due to limitations in available data.” I prefer not to draw strong conclusions from limited data, but that’s just me.

Are there really no places where Little Free Libraries aren’t near public libraries? Out of the 50,000 Little Free Libraries, might there not be some in rural areas that aren’t as well served by public libraries as two large Canadian cities? Just maybe?

The other basis for the attack on the Little Free Library corporation and movement is a criticism of something it never claimed or wanted to be. The big problem is that it’s a part of the “non-profit industrial complex” (NPIC). What is that?

NPIC scholars argue that activism has lost its grassroots drive for revolutionary change through its change in direction toward corporatization. Rather than fighting against the tenets of capitalism and its discriminatory systems, activism has subsumed itself into the corporate milieu. When a group seeks to become a non-profit organization, in order to maintain this status – for reasons of tax exemption to seeking funding – they (inadvertently) reinforce and conform to capitalist norms, effectively watering down the political motivations that bring like-minded activists together…, serving instead to keep a business running.

But why would anyone make an assumption that all non-profits are or should be dedicated to “fighting against the tenets of capitalism”? Should they all be there to “bring like-minded activists together”?

Couldn’t it be that some people want to do things through non-profits without having to associate with the sort of people who harp on them for not being radical enough all the time?

The entire article could have been boiled down to this sentence: Little Free Libraries claim to put books in places without public libraries, but that’s not true in Toronto and only partially true in Calgary, and they are not politically radical and therefore are bad.

Halfway through their article the “researchers acknowledge the presence of personal bias upon entering into this work.” Shocking.

If I had a front yard, I’d go build a Little Free Library right now just to annoy these people.



  1. Pamela Herron says:

    Thank you for a wonderful response to an article which annoyed ever so many of us! Well said! You should send the link to LFL founder Todd Bol. I think he would appreciate your analysis too.

  2. Barbara L says:

    Thank you, thank you for capturing my exact thoughts and putting them into this article when I could not do it well myself. I am a school librarian AND a LFL steward. I erected my LFL because I wanted to make sure the kids in my neighborhood had access to books, but when it comes right down to it, IT’S FUN – something this Canadian librarian clearly needs more of.

  3. Finally! I was just flabbergasted that out of all the issues, out of all of the problems, out of all of the places one could put some attention, this was the hill the Scrooge chose to fight and die on. This is classic White Privilege. She spent two years on THIS project. Why? Because no one she knew was getting killed. No one she knew was being deported. No one she knew was going without lunch because their family was poor. No one she knew was standing in a food pantry line. No one she knew was struggling to pay for healthcare. She has clean water. She has a roof over her head.

    It’s hard to know where to begin to thank you for your thoughtful look at the mess that was the original “article.” I don’t understand how this got past peer review. The author mentioned peer review had been soul crushing in a post on Facebook. She participated in a Facebook group for Stewards without disclosing to the membership of that group that she was taking their posts and quotes and tweeting them, using them for her “research.” She did, however, want us to click through and read her “work.” She reminded me of the worst part of 7th grade. It was pointed out to her, prior to publication by multiple people, that her view that Little Free Libraries were really only something rich, white women used to make themselves feel better was just inaccurate. Maybe when you’re rich, white, gainfully employed, living in a nice house, with food on your table, maybe you have the time and resources to buy an LFL just so you can be snarky about it. I’m so glad I’m not that person. I’m so glad I have chosen other things to spend two years of my time. This says way more about who she is than it does about the larger organization. It says that though she is white and privileged, she is one of the poorest people I’ve ever come across in a really long time. Annoyed Librarian, you wrote, “If I had a front yard, I’d go build a Little Free Library right now just to annoy these people.” Know that this Steward who lives in a small 2 bedroom 1 bath house is making a donation in your honor so that someone CAN have a Little Free Library in front of their house through the Impact Fund of the Little Free Library Organization. Since I can’t send you a box of brownies, the donation in your honor will have to do.

    • Sharon Rue says:

      What she also chose to leave out of her “research” were the thousands of us who, after erecting our own LFLs, also built and place others in community and neighborhood centers serving lower income members of our communities. Todd Bol and others have placed them in police stations, held “build events” with Scout troops teaching young people about community service, and contributed thousands of books into book deserts.

      This “research” project is a perfect example of having an preconceived conclusion and presenting only the “evidence” supporting it. I guess we should be grateful she isn’t doing cancer research.

      Thank you for your comment.

    • Starts to seem a bit Droste-cocoa-like, to complain that a “research project” that owes its absurd existence to the notion of White Privilege*, is itself an example of White Privilege.

      *Even down to the thing’s title, with its en vogue “Interrogating.” This dark word’s resuscitation after long disuse has not gone unnoticed by the blogosphere, but it’s fun to stumble across such a perfect and witless example. Thanks, AL!

    • anonymous coward says:

      AND…. this is why trump won.

  4. Sharon Rue says:

    What she didn’t mention in her “research” is the fact that many of us do not, in fact, purchase our little library boxes but build them ourselves from scrap materials in our garages. Paying a nominal, one-time fee to the LFL organization to register is well worth the benefits they offer. Just the rapid spread of LFLs worldwide should suggest, heaven forbid, that it is an idea that people love and support with our own money and time. Not the government. People. Like me. A retired grandmother living in a not-so-affluent neighborhood in coastal Louisiana where literacy rates are among some of the lowest in the U.S. Thank you for this article. From the steward of LFL #10988.

  5. SassieCass says:

    It’s funny that they are looking down on all the LFL stewards who aren’t spending their time with more “important” activism, as they say they aren’t helping “the community in a more meaningful way.” I’m going to just let the irony of that, of doing “research” on LFL’s instead, sink in for a minute.

  6. Kevin Sanders says:

    Anybody could be forgiven for thinking that anti-intellectualism was rife in libraryland.

  7. The Schmidt paper on LFLs confirms the thesis “No good deed goes unpunished.”

  8. Rick Ashton says:

    Has anybody suspected that this whole thing might be a spoof? Is someone at the Onion the real author of the piece?

  9. mud fence says:

    So, Luna, if one chooses not to put time and effort into the world problems identified above, but chooses instead to spend time on an insipid piece of “research”, then they are guilty of displaying white privilege. F**k that.

    Can someone please define white privilege for me cause I’m at a loss as to what the f**k I ever did that caused you folks so much pain.

    I’ve had friends murdered. I’ve been on welfare, food stamps and WIC. I’ve worked three jobs at a time to get by and raise a family. My white privilege — as far as I can see — never got me anything. I’ve had the cops stop me for having long hair — it was the 60s. I’ve been passed over for jobs I was qualified for because I am of short stature. I call “tall privilege” because as far as I can see, it’s a tall man’s world. How’s that? Who’s on my bandwagon?

    The world is the way the world is and people have to quit pissing and moaning about how they got screwed or who screwed them and move on.

    • Except for your use of profanity, I agree with you. And I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with those hardships. I’m very tired of people claiming ‘white privilege’ and all that crap. I have successful friends, who yes are white, but I watched them sweat and work their butts off to get to where they are. And one married a Hispanic man who worked just as hard as she did. They are both veterinarians now. I think the idea of ‘white privilege’ is just an excuse for peoples’ own laziness.

  10. Jasmine says:

    I guess I’m in the minority here, but I agree with the Canadians. LFLs are trendy, political, feel-good attempts at promoting literacy. They don’t work in low-income areas bc kids don’t have books to leave so they frequently end up empty. I don’t see them as a threat to public libraries but their popularity should prompt libraries to find creative ways to give away books in “book deserts” to help low-income folks build up their home libraries without an expectation to bring a book back.

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