One possibly surprising thing about Little Free Libraries: Other than to borrow and drop off books, lingering to peruse the titles or page through the pictures, people leave them alone.
That’s contrary to what passers-by wondered aloud when Mary Maxfield put up Little Free Library No. 848 – a peak-roofed box atop a sturdy post in her front yard on the South Hill, with a sign inviting people to take a book or leave one. How would she protect it from vandals? How would she keep people from throwing books into the street?
The Little Free Library in Mary Maxfield’s front yard along East 46th Avenue awaits neighbors in search of books. (SR Photo: Dan Pelle)
Not an issue, said Maxfield, a retired program director for the Girl Scouts who erected her little library last spring. Well, one time some kids drove past, their car vibrating with loud music.
“They hollered out the window, ‘What is that?’ I said, ‘It’s a library. Come and get a book.’
“ ‘Oh, OK, good, right on!’ ” the kids hollered back, Maxfield said. “Or whatever they say now. It wasn’t ‘right on.’ ”
The point is, people seem to respect books, Maxfield said.
Mary Maxfield browses books in the Little Free Library in her front yard. (SR Photo: Dan Pelle)
Judging by the quick turnover of the stock on Maxfield’s little shelf – and the rapid expansion of Little Free Libraries across the U.S. – people seem to love them still, too, despite their love also for iPads and smartphones.
Little Free Libraries got its start in 2009, when co-founder Todd Bol put up a schoolhouse-shaped box in his yard in Hudson, Wis., and stocked it with free books as a tribute to his mother. Bol’s background is in international trade. Working with Rick Brooks, an outreach coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he was soon making little libraries for other people, a network of sturdy, weather-proof boxes like Maxfield’s, and turning Little Free Libraries into a nonprofit organization whose reach extends into more than 30 countries. Their website, Littlefreelibrary.org, lists libraries’ locations and offers free building plans and prebuilt libraries for $250 to $600 (on the high end: a bright-red, three-shelf library that looks like a British phone booth).
Bol and Brooks aimed to put up more libraries than Andrew Carnegie, the philanthropist who paid for 2,509 libraries between 1883 and 1929, including 1,689 in the U.S. Little Free Libraries numbered 2,510 in August, Bol said – now they’re aiming for 5,000.
The website lists five little libraries in Spokane, although there’s at least one that’s not listed yet. The site lists about 65 throughout Washington and another 10 in Idaho.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the libraries rarely get vandalized, Bol said. “Everybody assumes the worst of everybody else,” he said.
He encourages library “stewards” to communicate with their neighbors from the start: Distribute fliers, tell them the library belongs to everyone. Ask everybody to contribute a book. Get the kids to pound some nails.
“They start to feel that it’s theirs. We’ve got our libraries in some pretty tough neighborhoods,” Bol said.
He’s heard about a few damaged libraries, but rarely does the story stop there. One woman put hers up, and the next day it was crushed, books scattered everywhere. The woman found out through the neighborhood that a couple of 10-year-olds had done it. After she talked to them about the library’s purpose, the boys built and distributed their own, Bol said.
One little library got burned down in Chicago, Bol said. Somebody in Minnesota heard about it, built a replacement and delivered it himself.
Because of other people’s contributions, Maxfield’s library is self-sustaining. She opened it with books she and her partner had around the house. She has a basket of books ready to add to the library in case the supply dwindles, but that hasn’t happened. Patrons leave books to share as quickly as they take them.
Children’s books go fastest, especially Ranger Rick magazines, Maxfield said. There seems to be one kid who snags those. Mysteries go fast. A title by Eudora Welty stuck around a while. “That’s a little cerebral for a lot of people,” Maxfield said. “I liked it.”
Maxfield built her library with her friend Sharon Oakley, a retired CT scan technician who has one, too, in front of her home on East 63rd Avenue. They used almost entirely donated materials. Oakley said she’s had to take books out of her library, it got so crowded. People stop by in their cars with bags of books to trade in.
Sharon Oakley, a retired CT scan technician, has a Little Free Library in her front yard on 63rd Avenue near Crestline in Spokane. (SR Photo: Dan Pelle)
Some people take books and bring them back.
A couple from the West Side, visiting relatives who live near Maxfield, borrowed Seattle author Garth Stein’s “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” read it, loaned it to friends there, got it back, and gave it back to their relatives in Spokane, who, after reading it, put it back in the little library along with a note about where the book had been.
Maxfield’s library is dedicated “in honor of parents who read to us.” She means “read” in a couple of verb tenses, Maxfield said – parents who read now, and parents who have read in the past. Maxfield said her mother read stories to her, although she liked her father’s made-up stories better. When she was a kid, she said, girls in books always had to be princesses, and they never got to do anything.
Now there’s a girl who lives nearby who stops regularly to check for new books in Maxfield’s box.
Her very first customer was an elementary-age girl with a pink backpack who read three books about the Berenstain Bears on the spot.
There’s something about a book that you can’t get from a computer, or whatever, Oakley said. “The electronic age – I mean, I’m going there kicking and screaming. But it’s not pretty,” she said. She gets comfort from a real book in her hand.
Added Maxfield: “Smelling a book – I love the smell of a new book.”
Encouraging literacy – getting books into the hands of those who don’t have them – is part of the mission for Little Free Libraries.
Bol said the little libraries also offer starting points, or meeting points, for people in neighborhoods. People tell him they meet more neighbors within days of putting up a little library than they did in the previous decade, or three decades.
“Facebook has demonstrated how people really want to connect and be part of a network,” Bol said. “But what people really, really want to do is they want to network and connect with each other in person.”
Maxfield and Oakley said they’ve both met people they wouldn’t have met otherwise. People stop and chat, say thank you, take books and put books in. Of course, you don’t have to see anyone if you don’t want to, Maxfield noted. She’s seen one person looking through her library at night. She’s thinking about putting a little light out there for night owls.
Former state Rep. George Orr invited his Peaceful Valley neighbors and served cookies for the summer opening of his little library, at the corner of Main Avenue and Cedar Street.
George Orr’s Little Free Library is stocked with books donated by neighbors and downtown workers who park in his Peaceful Valley neighborhood. He made it out of an old box he bought at a yard sale. (SR Photo: Adrian Rogers)
Neighbors and passers-by are invited to leave books that won’t fit in the library in a cupboard on his front porch. Last week his library shelves held several Tom Clancy novels along with “Sister/Stranger: Lesbians Living Across the Lines” and “Snow Bound: A Story of Raw Survival,” a hard-cover novel published in 1973 and once owned by Sun Valley (Calif.) Middle School, according to the stamp inside. Other notable authors whose work had passed through Orr’s library, he said: Sherman Alexie, Newt Gingrich, Erma Bombeck and Bill Clinton.
He recently invited four guys passing his house on skateboards to check out his library. They were passing a couple of beers among them, “bad-ass looking guys,” he said, and they didn’t seem keen on his library at first. Then they started looking at the titles, and they warmed up to it, and him.
“Now they won’t (mess) with our house, and they won’t (mess) with our stuff,” Orr said.
Bol said he thinks most people have a “primal need” to interface with other people, a need that goes unmet as we interface more with our TVs and computers.
“And I think Little Free Libraries is breaking down some of those barriers that I think all of us really want to break down,” he said. “I mean, don’t you feel best about yourself when you’re talking to somebody, and you feel good about who you are and who they are? Doesn’t that make you feel better?”