In less than five years, people in 55 countries have installed more than 16,000 little libraries in front of homes, schools, and businesses. Don’t tell Rotarian Todd Bol, the man behind the movement, that print is supposed to be dead.
When the editors at Reader’s Digest made a list of the “50 Surprising Reasons We Love America” for their July 2013 cover story, they placed Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi at No. 50, Bill Gates at No. 25, and toilet paper at No. 23. Sandwiched between sliced bread and tumbleweeds, at No. 11, was Little Free Library, a homespun-tribute-turned-international-phenomenon started by Rotarian Todd Bol.
People in 55 countries have installed more than 16,000 Lilliputian lending libraries, run on the premise of “take a book, return a book,” since Bol built his first in 2009 in memory of his mother, a teacher who loved to read. Called an “international movement” by the New York Times and a “global sensation” by the Huffington Post, the libraries have garnered coverage from media outlets including Japanese public television and French and Italian fashion magazines.
Participation is simple: Mount a wooden box (many of them look like birdhouses) on a post in front of your home, workplace, or school. Fill it with books. Delight as neighbors stop by to browse your selections or leave books of their own.
Bibliophiles aren’t the only ones willing to trade a patch of lawn for a box of books. Bol calls Little Free Library “a new canvas for community groups” – such as artists in New York City, who held a competition to design the boxes; inmates at a Wisconsin prison, who are constructing them as part of vocational training and community service; AARP, which is funding their installation at the homes of isolated elderly people; and corporations, which are building them on service days to give back to their communities. Rotary and Rotaract clubs from the United States to Canada, Mauritius to Ghana, are installing the libraries in their areas too.
Real estate agents report that a Little Free Library can encourage people to buy a home in the surrounding neighborhood, because it signals the kind of community-oriented place they are looking for. Residents in areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy installed the libraries so that even when nothing else worked, they would have books to read. Scientists in Antarctica want to build one at their airport. “The concept of more neighbors meeting than ever before is what keeps us vibrant and keeps us going,” Bol says.
About three-quarters of the operators (the organization calls them stewards) build their own libraries; plans are available on the nonprofit’s website, www.littlefreelibrary.org. The rest purchase readymade ones for $175 and up, depending on the model. The proceeds fund the staff, website, and educational outreach, as well as the organization’s programs to build more libraries for people in need.
Bol tinkers with prototypes at the Little Free Library workshop, located in Hudson, Wis. (population 13,187), in a nondescript industrial building next to a granite shop and a medical supply company. He calls one model – painted blue and adorned with tobacco lath he picked up at an auction – the blue shack of tobacco road, after the Johnny and Edgar Winter song. Another has a roof garden, and a third has a paint treatment to mimic stucco found on homes on the East and West coasts.
“We often call this Santa’s workshop,” Bol says. Stacks of books donated by a local publisher line the entryway. The shelves of a closet closed off by a beaded curtain are lined with paint cans. An entire room (Bol nicknamed it the accoutrement room; the staff call it Grandma’s barn) is overflowing with knickknacks destined to end up on a Little Free Library someday – blocks and Tinkertoys for a children’s library, a ceramic radish bunch that could adorn a cookbook library. “My wife and I are pickers,” Bol explains. “We go to thrift stores, Goodwill, find things where the antique stores would find them.” The organization’s creative director is painting the signs that go out to everybody who registers a library. (Another perk for those who pay the optional $35 registration fee: listing your library’s location on a map on the website.) Two Pomeranian-wheaten terriers named Shelby and Sienna bound out, tails wagging, to greet visitors. “This is the ultimate made-in-America cottage industry,” Bol says.
See some Little Free Libraries from throughout the country:
Bol has a scruffy beard and is wearing hiking pants and a multipocketed vest embroidered with the Little Free Library logo. He’s a raconteur who talks in punch lines. “I picture a comedy sketch going on across America. Our audience is 50+-year-old women, highly educated. I always get this vision of women smacking their husbands on the arm and saying, ‘Get out of the house and make something useful. I’m tired of those birdhouses – build me some libraries,’” he jokes during a phone call on his way to drop off libraries after a trip to the Minnesota State Fair. “People ask, ‘Why do you work so hard?’” he says, during another call on the way home from his weekly Rotary club meeting. “When I die and people look at all the plaques I got, they are going to say, ‘Well, maybe he wasn’t such a bastard after all.’”
For the organization’s boardroom, Bol crafted wooden desks and a set of shelves out of an old barn floor. He uses woodworking to relax, he says, just as someone else might go fishing or play golf. An international development specialist, in 2001 he founded a company that staffed U.S. hospitals with nurses from developing countries. The firm gave the nurses scholarships for graduate school; in exchange, they agreed to return to their home countries to teach other nurses. He sold a stake in the company to investors, who, when the economic downturn hit, wanted to close Bol’s office and transfer him to Cincinnati. With his family firmly planted in Hudson, Bol declined, and he and the company parted ways in 2008. After years of working overseas, he joined the Rotary Club of Hudson. “I knew the president of the Philippines, top officials in Asia, but nobody in my hometown knew who I was,” he says.
After his mother died, he spent almost a month traveling around in his minivan, listening to self-help books and contemplating his future. When he arrived back home, he and his wife began turning their garage into an office. When they replaced the garage door with windows, he didn’t want to let the vintage door go to waste, so he built a miniature red schoolhouse out of it in honor of his mother. He put it in his front yard and filled it with books. In May 2010, his wife held a garage sale, and everybody who came by loved the library. “They acted like it was a little puppy. They got all excited,” he says.
Around the same time, he became friends with Rick Brooks, an expert in community development (and, coincidentally, an editor for The Rotarian in the 1970s). The two kicked around ideas for social entrepreneurial opportunities and kept coming back to Bol’s library. “We knew there was genuine interest in this,” Brooks says. During the summer of 2010, Brooks, who lives in Madison, installed a library on a bike path outside an art gallery and coffee shop, where thousands of passersby saw it. By this time, Bol, who had built several more and given them away, could no longer keep up with demand. He hired an Amish carpenter as the primary craftsman, who created libraries using wood from a barn downed in a tornado. Bol credits Brooks as cofounder of the organization: “I could not have started this without Rick,” he says.
As the libraries gained attention through word of mouth and media coverage, they began appearing everywhere. Inspired by other library pioneers such as Lutie Stearns, a librarian who brought “traveling little libraries” to nearly 1,400 locations in Wisconsin between 1895 and 1914, Bol and Brooks set a goal of creating 2,510 libraries – one more than Andrew Carnegie. They hit that number in August 2012, a year and a half before their target date. These days, they talk about how they can harness the worldwide enthusiasm for the idea into a movement that goes beyond individual homeowners. “How do we use that energy to foster better relationships, improve literacy, and get neighbors to talk to one another?” Bol asks.
On an unseasonably warm and sunny day in October, they offer some answers to that question. Bol and Brooks are standing outside the Minneapolis/St. Paul chapter headquarters of Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly. Located across the street from a mattress store with a colorful mural on its exterior, the nonprofit provides holiday meals, friendly visits, and other social activities for more than 750 Twin Cities seniors annually. Its volunteer-maintained landscaping offers an oasis in a neighborhood not known for its tidy lawns. The organization’s staff is debating where to put its library, the first in a new partnership between Little Free Library and AARP to reach isolated elders. “It’s a gathering place. It’s the perfect place for a library,” says Jay Haapala, AARP associate state director for community outreach, who is there for the kickoff. “Neighbors can come over, too, and find out what goes on here.” As if on cue, an older gentleman walking by spots the blue and taupe library sitting on the ground and strikes up a conversation with Greg Voss, Little Brothers executive director. “This is big for us,” Voss says later. “We’ll get some traffic. It will be more people at our doorstep.” The Friends Through the Years partnership will install at least 40 libraries – including a second at the home of a 96-year-old woman, who has a lifetime of books she wants to share and is looking forward to some new reading material of her own.
Later that afternoon, Bol and Brooks arrive at a purple house and serendipitously find Natalie Johnson Lee and Ann Luce, two members of the year-old Rotary Club of North Minneapolis, sitting on the walkway stairs with a stack of books. The club had heard about the Little Free Library that Bol and Brooks are helping to install at the home and wanted to donate some reading material. Ariah Fine, who lives there, begins to dig out the hole for the post, and his children, Breton, 7, and Adyra, 6, help position the library. The children put in some Dr. Seuss books they’ve outgrown. Fine looks forward to featuring local authors and tailoring the selections to his community. “It will be a great way to connect with neighbors,” he says.
The library at Fine’s home is part of another Little Free Library program, Books Around the Block, which aims to install the boxes in struggling urban neighborhoods. Research shows that children who have books at home read at levels up to two grades higher than those who don’t. “One of our goals is to increase access to books and parent engagement on the North Side,” says Olivia Quintanilla, an AmeriCorps volunteer with Minneapolis Public Schools, which is working with Little Free Library.
Little Free Library also has launched programs focused on Africa (Rotarians already have begun installing the libraries in Ghana) and on the 11,000 small U.S. towns without a public library. “Me and a shovel aren’t going to do it ourselves,” Bol says. “I can’t think of anybody better than Rotarians. You guys could build a library in every small town in two months.”
The Rotary Club of Fort Wayne, Ind., is installing 100 miniature libraries to celebrate its 100th anniversary in June 2015. The local newspaper ran an article about the ribbon-cutting for the first one; within hours of publication, the club had received six phone calls from people interested in participating. The club is paying the fee to register the boxes with Little Free Library; the signs for the libraries are personalized with the club’s name. Later, the Rotarians plan to hold a scavenger hunt involving the libraries and highlight them on a Facebook page. “The response has been overwhelming,” says Candace Schuler, who is heading up the project. “People tell me, ‘I want one of these in my community.’ There’s no doubt we’re going to exceed our goal.”
In November, Bol attended the National Book Awards; Little Free Library was among the winners of the National Book Foundation’s 2013 Innovations in Reading Prize. Library Journal named him and Brooks “Movers and Shakers” for the year. Never one short for stories, Bol compares the mushrooming interest in the microlibraries to being a parent watching his children open gifts at Christmas, Gandhi going where his followers take him, and the Wizard of Oz. “I just feel fortunate that this happened,” he says. “I feel like I discovered the Tin Man on the Yellow Brick Road, and I put in some oil and he started dancing. And I had the great pleasure to have been the person who put the oil in.” – Diana Schoberg
Want to know more? Visit the Little Free Library website.