Take a Book, Return a Book, and Other Acts of Literary Kindness
Written by Brenda Knight
Little Free Libraries are one of the quietest and quirkiest forms of literary activism to come along in years. I had never heard of this movement until I was driving around North Berkeley on weekend errands four years ago. In the space of two miles, I saw what looked like two birdhouses full of books. Berkeley boasts a man who makes lovely birdhouses out of scrap wood and sells them off an old vintage pickup truck. Neighborhood folks call him “Birdhouse Man” and I thought he had branched out his business by adding see-through doors on bigger birdhouses with shelves for books. I remember thinking Birdhouse Man was surprisingly entrepreneurial as Berkeley, California, has a very well-read populace with so many professors and students.
My last errand involved dropping a signed print off to be framed in my neighborhood frame store. Sure enough, the frame store now had one of these little book houses right in front with a bench for sitting and reading. Gingerly, I opened the door and peered inside at a motley collection of paperback novels, cookbooks, puzzle books, and a handsome hardcover of Lost Knowledge which promised itself as a collection of trivia forgotten by the world.
Suddenly, I felt an urgent need to take the volume of Lost Knowledge. I went into the store and asked the owner “Is it really okay to just take this book?” She assured me it was and added that, “People often remark it is the exact book they need in their lives.” Sure enough, at the time, I was working with an author on a compilation of “Freaky Facts” and I did need that book. I asked Ms. Glen, proprietor of the frame shop, how she found out about this new-to-me phenomenon of free libraries. She replied it was a birthday from her daughter as they were both big readers and liked to pass books on afterward. After that, I noted these charming mini libraries all over the Bay Area.
Fascinated, I investigated these sweet book bins that were cropping up like California poppies all over and discovered it had all begun in Wisconsin. In 2009, Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, built a model of a one-room schoolhouse as a tribute to his mother who was a teacher who loved to read. He filled it with books and put it on a post in his front yard. His neighbors and friends loved it, so he built several more and gave them away. Rick Brooks of UW-Madison saw Bol’s do-it-yourself project while they were discussing potential social enterprises. Together, the two saw opportunities to achieve a variety of goals for the common good.
They were inspired by community gift-sharing networks, “take a book, leave a book” collections in coffee shops and public spaces, and most especially by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Around the turn of the 20th century, Carnegie set a goal to fund the creation of 2,508 free public libraries across the English-speaking world. The duo have gone way beyond the Carnegie’s goal and the number of Little Free Libraries stands at 50,000 and grows every day as the movement spreads from front yard to street corner to walls, parks and store fronts in all 50 states and over 70 countries around the world. Check out their website for more information or to sign up for newsletters and order a Little Free Library of your own.
As a member of the Women’s National Book Association-San Francisco Chapter, I am keenly interested in anything book-related and especially if it is advocacy as that is exactly what we do in the WNBA. I did a small survey of chapter members and was delighted to hear that many of us have a favorite Little Free Library or three in our own neighborhoods. Part of the fun of it all is that these tiny book exchanges are as unique as the “librarian” with many architectural styles and other features. Noted Alameda author Jack Mingo reported this about his local LBL, “The one in my neighborhood has late evening hours; it has a small light inside for night owls.” Agent Laurie McLean noted her colleague, Gordon Warnock of Fuse Literary had a Little Free Library at his spring wedding! Jane Denning, president of the Women’s National Book Association reports her favorite aspect of having aLittle Free Library is the notes from readers, neighbors and strangers.
Our chapter’s Membership Co-chair, Terye Balogh is a full-time librarian who shares this, “I love those little libraries. There are quite a few librarians and library clerks and pages in our system who have created those and placed them around their neighborhood. Living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I see them quite a bit, and have also noticed that a few businesses have areas where people can take a book, leave a book. I think that speaks volumes for the need for more funding for libraries. I’m all for anything and everything around books. I know that one of the library supervisors who has a little library on his property includes information about the libraries in his area. They are absolutely fantastic for our area during the summer, so many campers and they have access to books.”
We love hearing the librarian’s point of view and would also like to hear yours, dear reader. What stories can you share about your local itty bitty book exchange or photos of a favorite you have spotted “in the wild?” Feel free to send photos and regale us with tales of “acts of literary kindness.” And keep those pages turning!
WNBA-SF President Brenda Knight is the author of Wild Women and Books, Be a Good in the World, and Women of the Beat Generation, which won an American Book Award. She served as publisher of Cleis Press and was awarded IndieFab’s Publisher of the Year in 2014. She is a Publishing Consultant to Mango Media.