A few years ago, I started seeing little birdhouse-like structures popping up in front lawns around Denver. When I looked closer, though, I realized that these structures held books rather than stoops for birds. Adorned with signs that read “Little Free Library: Take a Book, Return a Book,” I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about this movement of community libraries.
It all started back in 2009 when a gentleman in Wisconsin put up a little library as a tribute to his late mother, who was a teacher and book lover. The idea quickly spread, and Todd Bol soon founded Little Free Library as a non-profit organization. The goal was to share the love of books as far and wide as possible, and boy has the organization done that: there are over 32,000 little free libraries worldwide as of this writing.
As a fellow book lover myself, I wanted in on the movement. My lovely wife bought me a library as a gift (you can buy pre-constructed libraries on their website), and I was able to get it up in our yard over Labor Day weekend this fall. After a few months in operation, I can happily say that it’s been an even bigger success than I imagined.
The little library functions as basically just a neighborhood book exchange. The idea is that someone will take a book that piques their interest, and sometime in the future return either that book, or a totally different one. On a weekly basis, there are dozens of books turned over in my library, and the benefits both to my own life, and to the community at large, have been numerous:
1. Promotes Literacy
As hard as it may be to believe, especially for readers of an internet blog, 14% of the US adult population can’t read. That’s over 30 million people. If that’s not sobering, I don’t know what is. Of adults who are literate, 20% aren’t reading above a 5th grade level. And even for those who can read well, it doesn’t mean they’re actually doing so. Our culture of online listicles (which, thankfully, is slowly changing) produces readers who only have the attention span to read short snippets of articles, and who seem to proudly ignore anything meaty or lengthy in nature. If this is true of online reading, how much truer does it ring when it comes to books?
Beyond just the enjoyment and fulfillment one often gets from reading, in many ways, the ability to read is one of the bedrocks of being a functional and successful adult in this world. Reading teaches discipline, empathy, history (and what we can learn from it), etc. The benefits are in indeed too numerous to list in full.
Now, having a little library in my yard certainly isn’t teaching folks to read outright, but my hope is that it promotes the idea that literacy is crucially important. Perhaps someone who hasn’t read a book in a decade will pick one up. Perhaps a young adult will grab a book a grade or two above their current reading level, and push themselves to learn and grow in their own literacy. Perhaps a parent or grandparent who can’t afford a book for their (grand)child will take one and be able to pass on the joy of reading to the next generation.
Books are treasures, and by putting a library in my front yard, I’m conveying that idea to my neighborhood, and to all the people who come by our busy corner. It’s an easy and risk-free way for someone to get into a book — there are no library cards to deal with, no endless rows of books to browse and be intimidated by, no guilt in not returning something on time. It’s as simple as it gets when it comes to promoting literacy at the most local level possible.
2. Promotes General Neighborliness
In a society of increasing isolation, getting to know your neighbors is a throwback to another era. Today, kids are kept inside for safety fears, and adults rarely see each other outside of shoveling the walk or grabbing the newspaper. Neighborhood cookouts are a rarity, and rather than grabbing a cup of sugar from next door, we just make a quick jaunt to the store.
The reality is that our neighborhood can be so much more than just the place we live. It can be the community that everyone desperately needs in their life. In the words of Marcus Brotherton: “When it comes to where he lives, an immature man tends to see his neighborhood only as a place to hang his hat. But a mature man sees his neighborhood as a place he helps create.”
You can help create the neighborhood you want to live in — that you want your children to grow up in — by installing a little free library. You’re promoting not only literacy, but friendliness, general well-being, community identity, etc.
What’s nice about the little library is that it’s actually a pretty passive way to build community. While you can certainly organize BBQs, block parties, and other neighborly events, with a library, you build it and install it just once, and from there you don’t do a whole lot other than general upkeep. If you’re like me, though, and regularly checking on the titles housed within, and ensuring the library is maintained well, you’re bound to get to know its patrons better.
3. Expands Your Own Literary Horizons
There are plenty of men out there who only read non-fiction, or who only read a specific genre of fiction like Tom Clancy thrillers or John Grisham legal dramas. Part of being a well-rounded man, though, is having knowledge in a wide array of disciplines. In a society of very specific niches in careers and interests, the man who can make connections between various seemingly unrelated subjects is the one who will be most successful and sought after.
Having a little library allows your own reading horizons to expand exponentially. In my own library are books about real estate, self-help-type memoirs, a nutrition textbook, some Shakespeare, lifestyle magazines, and plenty of fiction from a wide variety of genres. Many of them are books (and periodicals) I’d never dive into of my own accord. But by just picking up a couple to browse through, I’ve certainly built upon my general library of knowledge and contributed to adding mental models to my toolbox (which is crucial when processing through an OODA Loop).
Rather than building a library of books that you’ve entirely chosen, there’s something freeing about reading works that others have “selected” for me. I’m enjoying books I never thought I’d enjoy, and encountering unique authors and topics which never would have caught my eye in a bookstore or library. By limiting yourself to reading from a selection of just 10-15 books that a diverse group of other people has placed, you’re actually opening up your literary world to far more than would be possible otherwise.
4. Allows You To Talk With Strangers
The ability to talk with strangers is a skill that every man should work on. It improves your general social skills, yes, but also just makes you happier. What better way to commune with strangers than over books? Most days I’ll go out and check out my library: which books have been taken, which are new additions, what might I like to grab for myself? Since we have a city bus stop in front of our house, chances are good that someone will be there on the bench or standing and waiting for their transport.
Whether I start up a conversation or they do, more often than not there’s some small talk happening when I go out to the library. They ask if I was the one who put it up, if they have to return the book they take (they don’t — I just encourage them to return a book, any book, sometime in the future), where I got the idea from, and more. In many ways it makes small talk easier; there’s a very clear topic of conversation to focus on to get things going, and if the conversation turns elsewhere naturally, great. If not, I’ve just had some pleasant small talk with a stranger who has hopefully benefitted from my library. And as a bonus, I’ve evangelized the Little Free Library movement.
5. Cultivates Your Spirit of Generosity
I live in the heart of Denver. Within just a few miles of me, there are dozens more little libraries in folks’ front yards, sharing the joy of reading with any who wander by. Sure, the above benefits come into play, but what it comes down to most of all, especially for me, is the sheer desire to spread my love of books and of reading to my community. I want to live in a world where books, and the knowledge that comes with them, are highly valued. And the way to do that, in my corner of the world, is to be generous and cultivate a diverse library that can be enjoyed by neighbors and bus-goers alike.
Generosity is at the heart of this season, and at the heart of what a little library brings to your neighborhood. Ultimately, it’s about giving back to the community, and doing some good for the people who walk and drive by your house every day. I’ve even received notes of gratitude, which reinforce the benefits to my library’s patrons. Take this note, from a gentleman named Esteban, who was especially thankful to have a “companion” on a cold night at the busstop: “Thank you for this wonderful gift of a book. It’s an excellent companion on this cold and lonely night. I’ll return one in its place as soon as I can!”
If each block were to have a library, would we soon have a society that spends less time on their smartphones and more in the pages of a book? We won’t know unless we try, so get out there and build a library for your community.