Works in Progress - Summer 2013

More Libraries Than Carnegie

By Sasha Ingber | June 10, 2013


E-books might be wiping out bookstores, but Little Free Library, a small and erudite nonprofit, has put more than 6,000 miniature libraries on the map. Their books have reached the hands of children as far away as Lithuania, Ghana, and Afghanistan.

The movement started in Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2009, after woodworker Todd Bol built a small memorial library in his front yard for his mother, a former schoolteacher. Passersby were unsure whether it was a birdhouse or a bookworm’s fantasy, but soon Bol was constructing little libraries for interested neighbors.

Then the University of Wisconsin got involved. “Our goal in collaborating [with Todd Bol] was never to earn a lot of money,” says the university’s program manager, Rick Brooks. “We wanted to see if we could make a difference.” Bol and Brooks aspired to build more libraries than philanthropist Andrew Carnegie—a “mere” 2,509—and bring strangers together through the sharing of books.

The organization sells structures made from salvaged barn boards and recycled sawdust. Most patrons create their own by bringing new life to old mailboxes and dollhouses, microwaves and canoes—even a beehive.

Weatherproof and able to hold about two dozen books, the libraries perch on tree stumps and poles along bike paths, beside cafés, and in front yards, inviting people to take or leave a book. An average of 25 to 50 books come and go each month, though some libraries have handled as many as 1,000 in 30 days.

“People call for a truck to pick up books to bring to our warehouse,” says Brooks, “but the truck is a beat-up Honda and the warehouse is my front porch.”

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