Project Literacy Communities

The Neighborhood Book Exchange That’s Taking Over the World

by Susan Johnston Taylor

December 2, 2015
A Little Free Library in Sudan. Image courtesy Malaz Khojali.

At the Title I elementary school in Fort Worth, Texas, where Belinda King Scholl is librarian, every student receives free breakfast and lunch, and most don’t have books at home. So when Scholl’s husband offered to build a Little Free Library (a small wooden structure containing free books) in their front yard a half-mile from school, Scholl jumped at the idea.

Scholl’s Little Free Library—LFL for short—opened in July, and the neighborhood kids (most of whom are low-income and attend her school) already consider it a local branch of their school library. “One of these neighbor-students, a sweet little fourth-grade girl, helps me stock our LFL,” Scholl says. “I’ve given her two large boxes of children’s books, and she checks the LFL daily to tidy it and restock as needed. I call her my Junior Librarian and she just loves it. So do I.”

Scholl’s is one of more than 30,000 Little Free Libraries scattered across all 50 states and over 70 countries, in people’s yards and at schools, police stations, public spaces, and other locations. Wisconsin resident Todd Bol created the first Little Free Library in 2009 as a memorial to his mother, a former schoolteacher and lifelong reader.

“He built this miniature one-room schoolhouse and designed to fill it with books and share it with his neighbors,” explains Margret Aldrich, author of The Little Free Library Book and a spokesperson for the organization, which is now incorporated as a nonprofit. “He teamed up with a man named Rick Brooks in Madison, Wisconsin. From there, it really just grew through a grassroots, community-driven spirit.” Neighbors who might otherwise never know one another pause to check the selection at their local LFL or chat about favorite books, prompting some people to call LFLs “mini town squares” for the sense of community they foster.

The Little Free Library organization encourages stewards to create LFLs in their communities, but it has a particular emphasis on book deserts, areas where kids and families don’t have easy access to books. “Maybe the libraries don’t have hours that accommodate family schedules,” Aldrich says. “If you look at small-town America, about 11,000 small towns in this country don’t have libraries. Our focus is on helping to establish Little Free Libraries to maybe fill in that gap.”

A program called Kids, Community and Cops puts LFLs in police departments located in low-income neighborhoods and encourages positive interactions between kids and cops rather than the “cat and mouse” relationship that exists in some communities.

People are encouraged to take a book and leave a book, although that doesn’t always happen. Malaz H. Khojali, a journalist and TV presenter in Sudan, oversees three LFLs and helped fund seven in her community. “Some people were concerned about safety issues such as ‘What if the books were stolen?’ or ‘What if the LFL was destroyed?’ because in my country books are very expensive and are not easily available,” she says, adding that U.S. trade sanctions prohibit Americans from mailing book donations and make it harder for her to source books. “I always had the idea that even if someone never returns or sells the book it will eventually end up being read, and that serves the purpose overall.”

Robin Ross-Henning, who along with her friend Annmarie Crowley founded and manages an LFL in the reading garden at Sunny Hill Elementary School in Carpentersville, Illinois, says some of the kids who frequent the LFL keep books because they don’t have any at home. “We’re just really happy that the kids like them enough to keep them,” she says.

Ross-Henning notes that they try to work with the school to create seasonal happenings and build excitement around their LFL. “For Halloween, we did a Goosebumps takeover and filled the LFL with those books,” she says. “It was a big hit—the kids cleaned us out.” Over half of the kids at Sunny Hill are English learners, so a fundraising campaign helped stock the LFL with books in Spanish. (Scholl’s LFL also stocks Spanish books to reflect the needs of her neighborhood’s kids.)

Inclusiveness is a key part of the LFL movement. “It accommodates people of any economic background, any geographic background,” Aldrich says. “I love how Little Free Library just embraces everybody. Maybe people who don’t have a home address, maybe people who can’t get a library card. This gives them an opportunity to pick up a book and take it home with them.”

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The Neighborhood Book Exchange That’s Taking Over the World