“I’m an example of the dozens of different things you can do with an English major,” said Margret Aldrich ’03 M.A. before sipping her chai tea latte. A self-described “hunter of happiness, community and what makes humans thrive,” Aldrich has added “author” to her list of adventures; she spent the past year tracing the history, impact and stories of the Little Free Library movement. Her research culminated in the aptly titled The Little Free Library Book, published by Coffee House Press this month.
Aldrich encountered Little Free Library as an editor for Utne Reader, where she wrote about the organization on her blog “The Sweet Pursuit.” Each Little Free Library is a unique home to a constantly rotating book exchange; they are found commonly in the front yards of neighborhoods but also in hospital waiting rooms or coffee shops. Sustained by the mantra “Take A Book, Return A Book,” any passerby can borrow a book or leave one to share – no library card or membership required.
With experience in corporate proofreading, non-fiction book publishing, magazine editing, intellectual properties and news production, Aldrich attended a networking happy hour where she gushed about her love for Little Free Library with Chris Fischbach, publisher of Coffee House Press. About a year later, Fischbach contacted Aldrich. He and his team wanted her to write a book about this organization that quickly was becoming a movement promoting literacy and building community. So began Aldrich’s voyage into the quirky, spontaneous story of Little Free Library.
When an idea sparks a movement
Upon discovering a forgotten piece of wood in his workshop in 2009, Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, built a one-room schoolhouse as a tribute to his mom, a former schoolteacher who recently had died. Aldrich recalled these founding moments of Little Free Library with an intimacy that revealed the connection she formed with the organization while writing this book: “He filled it with books, put it in his front yard, and then really saw how people reacted to it. People would just hang out; it was like a neighborhood water cooler. ... He thought, ‘You know, I think there’s something here,’ and ‘How can I share it with other people?’”
Partnering with Rick Brooks, former outreach program manager of continuing studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Bol established Little Free Library as a Wisconsin nonprofit organization in May 2012. The organization’s early enthusiastic “stewards,” the affectionate name given to the owners of each library, generated word-of-mouth buzz and connected the movement with key supporters. More than 20,000 Little Free Libraries now reside in more than 70 countries.
Building more than a library
Stewards can buy one of 24 different library models from the organization or build their own. The creativity is boundless. “You can build one ... from anything. It can be from what’s in your recycling bin. It can be from wood. I know a woman who made one from an old microwave,” Aldrich said.
A steward receives a charter number and sign, which make the library official. Individual Little Free Libraries are listed on the Google “World Map” and the Appendix, creating a global community of book lovers and advocates.
Aldrich gathered 40 profiles of stewards from across the world for the book. One man living in rural Georgia made his library into a geocache, surprising adventurers with the opportunity to find a book on their journey. The Los Angeles chapter of 826 National, a tutoring organization, has a Little Free Library from which students can either borrow books or leave one of the books they write and publish through the program. During summer 2013, the PEN World Voices Festival and the Architectural League of New York partnered with Little Free Library and selected 10 architects to design little libraries throughout New York City. Closer to home, the organization’s Books Around the Block initiative with Minneapolis Public Schools is a strategic program focused on placing books in “the everyday path of a kid walking home from school or someone getting off the late shift at work where the (public) libraries are closed,” Aldrich explained.
While writing the book, Aldrich and her husband visited Bol in Hudson, Wisconsin, where they built their own Amish-shed-style library. After rummaging through photos on her iPhone, she proudly revealed a white library with a bright yellow door and a little fox-head handle. Aldrich keeps a guestbook inside to pose questions for visitors – an example of how the movement encourages connections beyond shared books.
The global charm of Little Free Library
Why has such a simple concept – free books – become a global movement focused on promoting literacy and building community?
Each Little Free Library is a delightful “treasure box” of sorts, Aldrich explained, and the serendipitous adventures posed by opening their doors may be one appeal. Asked what her favorite find in her own library has been, Aldrich didn’t hesitate: “Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, which I hadn’t read since I was in college, and it had a big impact on me then, so to find it again and re-read it was amazing. And someone put in a Star Wars character encyclopedia, which I thought has to be the coolest book to show up in a little free library ever.”
The accessibility of Little Free Library offers another clue: “If you have a ton of money or no money you can make a little free library, and it also … speaks to how the culture of books is accessible to everybody,” Aldrich said.
What’s more, the books we read – and share – reveal layers of who we are and what we value. The books that find homes in the Little Free Libraries on your block offer “a sense of the flavor of your neighborhood,” inspiring a bit of “literary voyeurism,” Aldrich said. “Whether there are Jamaican travel guides or Lebanese cookbooks or romance novels or historical fiction, it’s always interesting to see what people put in.”
The movement also may be a reaction to our technologically seduced world. We read more often than not on digital screens, an activity that promotes seclusion rather than face-to-face exchanges. But each Little Free Library pulls us away from the happenings of Facebook and Instagram and compels us toward a new literary adventure and a chat with our neighbors – a quality that fascinates Aldrich.
“Little Free Library is about as analogue as you can get, right? Literally, it’s a box full of books. And I think there’s something so appealing about that – that it’s this hands-on exchange that’s always happening,” Aldrich mused. “I think it’s a good anecdote to our technologically obsessed world.”