Little “bookshelves on a stick” sit on sidewalk corners, in front of houses or on busy roads. They often feature fun display colors and house an eclectic assortment of free reading material. But behind the tiny libraries popping up across the world is a bigger mission: improving literacy access in the United States and around the world.
“Numerous studies show that having [book] access can really jumpstart your success both in school and later in life,” said Margret Aldrich, the director of communications and media relations at Little Free Library (LFL). “Expanding book access [is important] because there’s a surprising number of communities across the U.S. and certainly around the world who really don’t have easy access to books.”
But like the libraries, the idea started out small. In 2009, Todd H. Bol created the first tiny library out of spare wood from an old garage door. The project was a tribute to his mother, a late educator who loved to read.
Though the project was initially a one-time effort, Bol founded the organization after seeing the positive response from his community. Today, the organization has spread more than 150,000 tiny libraries around the world, on all seven continents (including the South Pole).
Aldrich said those who start free libraries with LFL do so under a “universal nature.” People can start their own little libraries either by purchasing tiny bookshelves directly from the organization or by building their own. Then, they register their library with the organization, where it’s added to a map so others can access it. From there, the tiny library can become part of the neighborhood.
“What struck a chord [around the world] was really a desire to share your own love of reading, but also really the desire to connect with your community,” Aldrich said. “Since the pandemic started in 2020, we’ve had a lot more activity. … A Little Free Library was a way to feel like you were still connected with your neighbors, with your community, even when you couldn’t actually be together in person.”
The pandemic spurred Dionna Roberts to start her own series of tiny libraries in Kalamazoo, Michigan. As a public school teacher, she began to worry that children wouldn’t have access to books. Although her city typically has public and school libraries, they also faced pandemic-related closures.
Left without book access, some neighborhoods in Kalamazoo became book deserts. Aldrich said these deserts are more common in low-income communities and are determined by how close the community is to various book access points.
Roberts said she’d seen tiny libraries around, but made it her mission to bring the first few to her side of town. With some initial fundraising efforts, she raised enough money to purchase two tiny libraries from LFL.
“All kids should have books at home that they can access,” Roberts said. “[They] shouldn’t have to worry about transportation or money being a barrier to keep them from having books in their hands.”
Her effort expanded thanks to the help of Kellen Deau, another educator in the area. With Deau’s grant writing skills, Roberts said the pair secured an additional $9,000 in funding. This time, the money went to a local carpenter and resulted in 25 more libraries. At this point, LFL received word of their efforts and added seven more to the collection.
Although most tiny libraries run on a “take one, leave one” system, Roberts said it’s not always possible. She restocks her libraries with the help of this is a bookstore & Bookbug, a local independent bookstore that donated to Roberts and Deau’s effort. This support provided the pair thousands of dollars worth of books to provide to the community.
Several local volunteers also started helping them manage their libraries.
“It’s been a little overwhelming with the positive response,” Roberts said. “Kalamazoo is very small, a very tightly knit community which is a positive in this case, that is very eager to help those who are looking to help others. … When we’re out in the community, we’re always asked, ‘Are you the little library people? Are you the book lady?’”
The libraries are small, but they’ve touched thousands of lives. Aldrich said various tiny library owners have found handwritten notes from children in their libraries thanking them for igniting their love of reading.
More recently, LFL has started considering what types of reading materials to include. It started a Read in Color program after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. LFL is based in the Minnesota Twin Cities, so the tragedy “really hit home for us,” Aldrich said.
They partnered with various community partners around the country to determine placements for Read in Color libraries. These are special tiny libraries stocked with literature from authors with various cultural backgrounds and identities. These efforts allow people to learn about those who are different from themselves, which Aldrich said “can help build empathy and inclusion.”
Aldrich shared one particularly touching story from a Minneapolis Read in Color partner, whose daughter pulled a picture book titled ‘Ada Twist, Scientist’ from the shelves of one library. When she saw the Black girl on its cover, she told her dad the girl looked “just like her” and then took the book home, where she now regularly pretends to be a scientist.
“It’s such a small thing to pick up a book when you’re a kid and see yourself, someone who looks like you on the cover or inside pages,” Aldrich said. “It sounds like a small thing, but it can have a real impact on what a kid believes is possible.”
Looking forward to 2023, Aldrich said the organization’s main goals will be to expand its programs and bring them to 2,500 book desert locations in the U.S.
For many, Aldrich said empowerment and book access can go hand in hand.
“We’ve gotten feedback from folks that having a Little Free Library in your community just really shows that you’re a community that is worth investing in,” Aldrich said. “That you deserve to have a book to read, just like everyone else does.”