Unconventional libraries: Finding novel ways to share books
Members of the Literacy Council of South Temiskaming stand next to a Little Free Library at 117 Whitewood Avenue in New Liskeard, Ont. (Courtesy of Susan Hughes)
Published Saturday, July 28, 2012 6:45AM EDT
Erected in the front yard of a Winnipeg home, it isn’t your ordinary library. There is no one patrolling the books, finger raised to lips, prepared to shush you. Plastic cards are not required for borrowing and the phrase “late fee” does not apply.
Welcome to Charlene Roziere’s Little Free Library, a birdhouse-like structure housing two miniature bookshelves. Patrons are invited to take a book, and then return a book -- but the one that comes back does not necessarily have to be the one that was taken.
From Canada to Australia, there appear to be more than 2,000 of these miniature libraries registered around the world, though the number continues to be a moving target. The only currency in the Little Free Library project is trust, and typically those who set up the structures have it in spades.
Roziere’s pint-sized library, a red and white schoolhouse built by her husband Jeff McMahon, marks its one-month anniversary on Sunday. For nearly 30 days now, passersby have borrowed titles such as Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and swapped in others such as Khaled Hosseini’s international bestseller “The Kite Runner.”
“I thought it would be about the books,” said Roziere, who lives near Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park. “But the best part is watching people discover (the library) and seeing the joy on their faces. It makes our neighbourhood feel more like a community.”
Examples of unconventional libraries, including the Little Free Library project, exist around the world. Bus stop book collections have been built in Israel and Brazil, while one New York City architect has repurposed unused telephone booths to serve as mini-libraries.
Some of these libraries are set up with the explicit aim of bringing the written word to communities that might not have access to it otherwise. Children in Colombian villages have borrowed books from the back of a “biblioburro,” a donkey toting a mobile library. Education advocates at World Literacy Canada have placed book collections in roadside stalls in India, and have also used a mobile van library to reach residents who live on the outskirts of Indian cities.
Often, the motive behind an unconventional library is simply to capture the imagination.
Occupy encampments around North America included makeshift libraries, collections that depended on donations and operated on the honour system. Another approach is taken at BookCrossing.com, where readers note that they’ve left a book in a public space and leave the approximate location for others, resulting in a literary scavenger hunt.
The idea of alternative public libraries has even cropped up in the bar and restaurant industry. Just a block away from Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square, the upper level of the Imperial Pub boasts a “Pub(lic) Library Lounge” where patrons can thumb through shelves upon shelves of books while sipping on a pint and munching on some popcorn.
But without the features that complete traditional libraries -- cards, anti-theft sensors, a fee system -- how do alternative libraries guard against vandalism and thievery? The simple answer, according to the organizers of Little Free Libraries, is they don’t.
“You can't steal a free book. And if you have a good steward and lots of active users, eventually someone who tries to ‘steal’ books will realize that it's not a good thing to do. If they do take books, they might even read them,” reads an online statement.
To thwart any attempts to resell Little Free Library books, organizers suggest branding book jackets with a sticker or stamp that will tell used bookstore owners about the movement.
Beginning in 2009 in the American Midwest, the Little Free Libraries project is the brainchild of Todd Bolt. The Wisconsin-native created the first miniature book collection to honour his late mother, a teacher who loved literature.
Since then, the idea has taken root in Canada and beyond.
Those who build Little Free Libraries have the option to register their boxes online, where they receive an identifying number akin to a licence plate. Registration also means the library’s location will be pinned to a comprehensive online map. Some who prefer more privacy choose to forgo this process and remain relatively anonymous.
‘A grace note in…a very rushed world’
Library No. 1442 sits in the northern Ontario town of Haileybury, where a little cedar library box teeters atop a post at 95 Meridian Avenue.
According to one of the library’s stewards, Susan Hughes, there’s a similar miniature library in nearby New Liskeard, Ont. Both, she says, appear to be well used.
“I’ve had to fill one box up about four times, so you can tell they’re receiving a lot of traffic,” said Hughes, a member of the Literary Council of South Temiskaming.
That said, one adjective Little Free Library stewards never seem to offer is “abused.” Despite the highly public nature of the boxes, the U.S. organizers of the project claim defacement is rare and say there have only been about four reported instances of vandalism.
“But don't worry. Those incidents occurred while hundreds of thousands of people passed by the Libraries and probably tens of thousands used them,” reads a frequently asked questions section on the Little Free Libraries project website.
Back in Haileybury, Hughes noted that no one has attempted to deface the town’s Little Free Library since it was first erected last spring.
“That was a big worry for us, but so far, nothing,” she said.
Further south in Toronto, urban designer Ken Greenberg conceded he’s only vaguely familiar with the Little Free Library movement, but said he understands why it would catch on.
“It gives people an opportunity to participate in a transaction where there’s no monetary reward for somebody. There’s no thought for exploitation, it’s a pure act of generosity. It’s an opportunity to do something out of the paradigm of the marketplace,” said Greenberg, an architect and principal of Greenberg Consultants Inc.
Even traditional libraries have started to redefine themselves in recent years, veering away from ink on paper and providing more opportunities for patrons to connect to resources online. Computer stations, e-books and mobile applications give readers an opportunity to access book collections withoutactually interacting with anyone else.
Perhaps that’s why unconventional libraries are valued, offered Greenberg, who noted that the novelty of something such as a wooden book box allows strangers to “meet each other’s eyes again” in a world where relationships are increasingly monetized or commercialized.
“There’s something benign and generous about it,” he said. “It’s a grace note in what is otherwise a very rushed world.”
From Bill Wrigley’s front window, he can see passersby peering at the wooden book box in front of his home at 304 Lee Avenue in Toronto’s East Beaches neighbourhood.
“I like to watch everything that goes on at the book box,” he said. “What will happen is people who have been neighbours for more than 25 years will meet each other. Teens visit to sit and chit-chat. People take photos in front of my house. It’s a community centre.”
His Little Free Library, a brown box with white trim, is arguably the most well-known miniature library in Toronto. The structure holds about 30 books, but the interest in Wrigley’s library has been so high that he’s had to put a sign up asking patrons to return no more than two books.
But that ability to have an open dialogue with those who visit his Little Free Library is the beauty of having a circulating library on his front lawn, Wrigley noted.
“Everybody who makes one has their own set of rules,” he said. “When you go to a library you have to have a card, when you’re late you have to pay a penalty. There’s all these little rules you’re expected to follow. My rule is simple: The books have to be a good read.”