At all started in 2009 when Todd Bol, who was well into his sixth decade, had just lost his job and was looking for a new venture. A born handyman, he set about transforming his garage into an office. He completely reconfigured the space and added a couple of windows to make it lighter. When he came across an old wooden door dating back to 1920, it was too painful to discard something so beautiful. But what could he do? With the wood, Bol decided to build an American-style model classroom in memory of his mother, Esther “June” Bol, a former teacher and avid reader. This little library complete with a glass door had just enough room inside to house around twenty books, all topped off with a roof and clock tower. The first Little Free Library was born.
Todd Bol placed the prototype in front of his house in Hudson, Wisconsin, filled it with his favourite books, open to all, with only one proviso: “Take a book. Return a book”. He soon realised just how much his neighbours appreciated the initiative. Several other Little Free Libraries followed, which he more often than not gave away, and occasionally sold. A mention on local radio gave the project a real boost and it wasn’t long before the national press got wind of the Little Free Library movement. In every corner of the United States and abroad, these pocket-sized libraries were catching on.
At the very heart of the Little Free Library concept is the commitment of its stewards – the name assigned to those who set up and run the libraries, effectively introducing their favourite books to the local community. In other words, each little library is unique and reflects not only the preferences of its steward, but also the enthusiasm and creativity of its borrowers. The stewards are clearly motivated by a love of reading and the desire to share their passion. One Australian lady who created Melbourne’s first Little Free Library explains: “A family friend who was suffering from brain disease had to go into a nursing home. This avid book lover left a legacy of an entire life of reading, which is why I so wanted to create a Little Free Library in her memory. It has been hugely inspirational for others, with little libraries springing up all over the neighbourhood as a result. I am so happy that my friend left this legacy.”
But beyond the passion of the printed word, these little libraries create strong social ties within the community. Mike Cornell, a steward in Grand Rapids in Michigan, readily admits that after creating his library he has spoken more to his neighbours in two weeks than in the previous ten years. And it wouldn’t be unusual to find thank you letters, drawings and even messages in the libraries. When a neighbour left a packet of seeds in the library back in the spring, he was surprised to see a fellow neighbour knocking at his door with a basket of beetroot the following summer to reward his kindness.
Encouraging children to read is one of the founding objectives of the Little Free Libraries and this is a huge challenge for society at large. According to the US Minister of Education, two-thirds of school children unable to read by the age of 10 will either end up in prison or be dependent on state hand-outs.
Little Free Libraries encourage their ambassadors to organise events to promote reading in their local area, such as children’s story time, book clubs and book donations. The organisation ensures these initiatives are echoed abroad. A programme is currently running in India to launch 1,000 Little Free Libraries in the country’s state schools.