Mini Libraries take the IE by Storm

By Kimberly Johnson

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Posted November 27, 2013 in Feature Story

(WEB)coverIt’s the Little Things that Count

Little Free Libraries (LFL), also referred to as book exchanges, book trading posts and Noox (National bOOk eXchanges), have spent the last four years emerging from their humble beginnings on a Wisconsin home front, to transforming into quirky, internationally revered staples for communal literary enlightenment. They are essentially a grassroots effort geared toward providing accessibility to literature, offering in a way that provides the feeling of discovery, exclusivity and a sense of D.I.Y. quirk.

By definition, a Little Free Library is a small structure containing a line-up of constantly changing books donated and shared by a community. While many businesses may have garnished “take a book, leave a book” shelves for years prior to the LFL project, their unique structure and emphasis on community involvement have made this trend a movement of its very own.

One of the most unique aspects of Little Free Libraries lies within their artistry. As hand-crafted structures with definitive design elements, these operations are the brainchildern of book lovers that aim to engage the useful and adored reality of local creative thinkers.

While they are commonly made of wood or some type of refurbished item such as small antique dressers, more adventurous libraries can be found in the shapes of rocket ships, made from recycled bicycle parts or even completely compiled of plexiglass with rotating shelves.

The Inland Empire is home to a handful of these attractive Little Libraries, with official locations in Riverside, Idyllwild, Ontario, Palm Springs and several throughout the city of Redlands. In fact, Redlands resident and muralist Robb McDermott installed his own handcrafted Little Library in 2009, making it the first in the city as well as the first in the Inland Empire. McDermott decided to install his own LFL after making a trip to the Northeast where he was exposed to the trending culture of mini libraries. He was able to catch the first major moves of the Little Free Library movement, back when their official website resembled more of upstarting blog as opposed to the legitimized non-profit they are today. McDermott then created a franchise version of this viral idea by refurbishing an old bookcase and hand-carving accents into the frame. As an avid book lover, he had plenty of books to aid the cause. He filled the book case with items from his expansive library and officially set up shop. The artistic touches and vintage feel of the bookcase immediately began attracting community members with inquiring minds. Word of mouth began to spread McDermott ‘s project, and the phenomenon had officially been dispersed through the grapevine.

The LFL trend became popularized in 2009 when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin built a wooden container resembling a miniature one room school house as a tribute to his mother, a teacher, who often spent her time intertwined in a novel or two. Bol then filled the container with a variety of books from his own collection, secured it to a post on his front lawn, and attached a sign reading “Free Books.” His friends and neighbors immediately latched on to the idea, wanting a Little Free Library of their own.

Bol called upon Rick Brooks, an Outreach Program Manager from Madison, Wisconsin, who saw an opportunity to expand and create an enterprise utilizing the LFL’s unique existence. In 2010, the two began the official www.LittleFreeLibrary.org website. The early days of the website followed the first installations of LFLs, discussing their cause and outlining their appeal. The LFL Corporation later gained status as a non-profit in 2012, and became geared toward helping communities obtain their own Little Free Libraries while also hosting a growing database of LFLs worldwide. As the movement began taking shape, these carefully curated and visually appealing literary hubs began expanding internationally. By May of 2013, there were 7,000 Little Libraries across the globe. There are now locations in all 50 states as well as 40 countries word wide.

In addition to their style, there are a few other key factors that set a LFL apart from just any pop-up library. Their permanency, their pickiness and their level of communal and social encouragement all aid in making their continuation distinctive. A pop-up library is an impromptu miniature library with an unpredictable and usually inconsistent shelf life. The opportunities for second or third visits are not always promised. However, with a public demand for them, LFLs are as permanent as their hosts want them to be. With an outpour of public appreciation, it would seem most locations aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“I always knew that if I ever got to put up a Little Free Library, it wouldn’t be mine really, it would belong to the neighborhood,” said Elizabeth Slater, Redlands resident and LFL host. “I never anticipated how very rewarding and uplifting people’s gratitude and excitement would be. It’s just been a wonderful experience from day one.”

Little Free Libraries are also critically curated to ensure a quality reading experience for audiences. Physically diminishing novels are often removed by hosts and exchanged for books that will survive one more train ride, one more semester of reading during class breaks and one more series of late night sessions, able to withstand another turning of the page and chapter read.

Lastly, the camaraderie created between neighbors as a product of having a Little Library in your community is invaluable. It is an ideal opportunity to offer a useful neighborhood commodity. “I think that Little Free Libraries bring a sense of smallness and connectedness to a community,” said Slater. “I’m very passionate about libraries and reading, of course, but I also love the spirit of the Little Free Library organization—the belief that books are to be shared and that reading brings people and communities together; I wanted to be a part of that.”

Elizabeth Slater has followed the trend from its inception in the Northeast to its expansion in the Inland Empire. “I always knew that once [my husband and I] bought a house [in Redlands] it wouldn’t be complete without a Little Free Library,” she said. “My husband surprised me with the library for my birthday two years ago. I was totally blown away—best birthday ever.”

While Slater got undeniable joy from her husband’s offering, the simplicity and usefulness of the gift has already proven to aid her community as a whole. “My favorite story comes from a woman who told me that her elderly parents lived nearby and that they love to read—but because of their age—they couldn’t get around town as easily as they used to. She said that since I opened the library, they can easily walk to it for new books.”

It’s the little things that prove to make a lasting impression for the individuals in admiration of this movement . UC Riverside grad students Kenny Ryan and Corrie Neighbors installed a Little Free Library in front of their Riverside residence in October of this year. To supplement their already open invitation for neighbors (and strangers) to stop by their home and rummage through their selection of books, they also threw in a community friendly bench while they were at it. Ryan and Neighbors’ LFL was the second in the city following The Riverside Womans Club installation in April of 2013.

There are new installations implemented worldwide every single day. Lisa Lewis of Redlands is the latest to house an LFL in the IE. To commemorate the newest D.I.Y. book hub in town, Lewis threw a gathering and welcomed the neighborhood. “I invited neighbors and local friends to celebrate the launch of our little library— it seemed like a great reason for a little celebration. They all brought books to contribute and took home other books to read, so it jump-started the whole lending process. The woman who actually built the little library, Danielle Wallis, who’s a good friend and an accomplished artist, was there as well.”

The community continues to flourish day by day as social media continues to shine an endearing spotlight on the culture. Sites like Tumblr and Pinterest have taken a particular liking to the phenomenon, gaining an impressive gallery of LFLs from every corner of the globe. On top of them being a fantastic commodity for adults and young adults, the function of a Little Free Library extends itself as an enticing way to attract new readers.  “We had a trick-or-treater this year who said to [my husband and I] ‘I really like your book cupboard!’—so cute,” said Slater. This is one trend worth buying in to, probably because the audience doesn’t even have to buy in. Parents of young children can bypass due dates and late fees commonly involved with traditional libraries by bringing their little one to a local Little Library.

As the idea maintains its community interest, locations of non-official Little Free Libraries have sprouted up out of the woodworks. Olive Avenue Market in Redlands has their own miniature community library that serves the same function as an LFL. Visitors can realistically come with the intentions of buying produce and leave with a poetry journal from Poe as well—it’s quite brilliant.

In addition to official Little Free Libraries location throughout San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, there are also many mini libraries spread throughout the surrounding cities. However, one of the worthwhile benefits of becoming an official member of the Little Free Library movement is the ease of accessibility for community members to find your library location. The site’s database uses an impressive global map with addresses, names and emails of LFL hosts pristinely intact.

Little Free Libraries and their prominence in our community have proven to show the distinct correlation between what one commonality can do to aid in bringing a once separated community together. As Slater mentions, LFLs bring a sense of value to participant’s lives—for the host as well as the audience. “There’s a C.S. Lewis quote that I’ve always loved; he wrote ‘friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art . . . it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” That’s how I feel about the effect of libraries, and Little Free Libraries in particular: they give value to our lives.”

To find out more about Little Free Libraries near you, visit www.littlefreelibrary.org.


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