In 2009, Todd Bol was looking for a way to honor the memory of his mother, a “dancing spirit,” book lover and retired teacher who tutored neighborhood children at her dining room table.
He built a box shaped like a one-room schoolhouse out of his old garage door and mounted it in on a 4x4 in his Wisconsin front yard. He filled it with his mother’s books, and invited anyone who walked by to “take a book, share a book.”
It wasn’t long before Bol was building libraries for his neighbors. Then he and a friend built a few more, planting them in a scattering of Midwestern cities. Before long, the national press took notice, widening interest even more. Bol founded the nonprofit “Little Free Libraries,” determined to promote reading and neighborhood unity through book exchanges around the world.
In a 2012 interview, Bol dreamed of planting 2,510 Little Free Libraries, one more than the number of public libraries built by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. He accomplished his mission two years later. Today, you’ll find 100,000 Little Free Libraries (plus countless more that go unregistered) in 100 countries, providing millions of books for readers of all ages. There’s even a Little Free Library on the Yamal peninsula in Siberia for reindeer herders and their families.
This network of tiny libraries made a big impression, winning the Library Journal’s “Movers and Shakers” award, the National Book Foundation’s “Innovations in Reading” prize and a Literacy Award from the Library of Congress. In 2013, they made Reader’s Digest’s list of “50 Surprising Reasons We Love America.” Bruce Springsteen, the Boss himself, barely slid in at 50th, and the best Bill Gates could do was 25th. Little Free Libraries bested them both, placing 11th.
It took three years for a Little Free Library to make its way from Wisconsin to the Yakima Valley. Mary McIntosh isn’t sure if hers was the first, but it’s the certainly the library everyone noticed. In 2012, Roger Kline, one of Yakima’s favorite builders, made her a library that looked just like a Victorian doll house, painted it purple and installed it in her Barge-Chestnut front yard.
A retired university reference librarian and member of the Yakima Valley Regional Libraries Board of Trustees, Mary needed an outlet for all the books she was constantly accumulating. After all, books are a reader’s heart and soul, and putting them in a Little Free Library is a way of sharing your pleasure with the whole neighborhood.
What she discovered was that she barely had room in the library for her own books. Passersby were enthusiastically dropping boxes and boxes of their books on her porch, and, eight years later, they’ve never stopped.
Some libraries are simple boxes, while others qualify as authentic folk art. Around the same time the McIntosh library was planted, rural Selah resident Cathy LeCompte built a library so spacious she named it the “Book Barn.”
Another Selah book-lover made a bright purple and green library just for the neighborhood kids, and hand-painted it with the promise, “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” Diana Pieti fills the library with books, puzzles, stickers, coloring books and crayons.
For her loving efforts, her daughter says, “For years to come, kids will remember my mom as the lady who lived on the corner and gave away all those books.”
Another kids library, painted with brightly colored hand-prints, stands at the entrance to Selah’s Helms Hardware. It stays well-stocked with community book donations.
When the Dorn family had to cut down a cherished maple tree, they used the lower 5 feet of its stump to make A Little TREE Library. Ornate leaded glass doors on opposite sides of the trunk open to a library in the hollowed-out heart of the tree. Solar lights add illumination at night.
The Dorns discovered that on a single bike ride, they can visit 10 other libraries.
The Clemans Avenue Little Free Library, brightly painted with characters from your favorite children’s books, was built by the Kelley family in 2016. It’s their way of saying “thank you” to the neighbors and friends who came from all over Moxee to offer help when their home was destroyed by fire in 2015.
Earlier this year, Jarda Kelley published “The Littlest Librarian.” Her own artwork illustrates her tale of a little bookworm who dreams of sharing books with his community.
As a Christmas gift in 2017, my son-in-law built me a library of my own. I live near Franklin Park on an off-the-beaten-path-street no one has ever heard of. Since my library went in, I’ve met more people than I had in 35 library-less years.
One of the best parts of my day is watching people open my library and take a book. It’s more than just a neighborhood thing. Readers will travel across town in search of a good read.
I never know what they’ll drop off. A tome by Nietzsche and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” could be sharing a shelf. I rolled my eyes when I found a batch of bodice-ripper romances, but they were all snapped up in a single day. And two weeks ago, I discovered that someone had cut off their home-detention monitoring cuff and stashed it behind a row of books.
Just before he died in 2018 at the age of 62 from cancer, Boll said, “I really believe in a Little Free Library on every block and a book in every hand. I believe people can fix their neighborhoods, fix their communities, develop a system of sharing, learn from each other and see that they have a better place on this planet to live.”
The world is messy and complicated. A little bit of heaven on Earth for me is a walk-able neighborhood, full of front-yard gardens and Little Free Libraries. Never underestimate the power of these three welcoming features to turn strangers into friends.
My only regret is that I waited so long to get a library of my own.