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In Defense of Little Free Libraries

June 1st, 2017 (03:42 pm)

Two librarians in Toronto recently went public with criticism of the Little Free Library organization. I think they're being short-sighted. Of course, Little Free Libraries are no substitute for full-size libraries; they were never meant to be. And they will not singlehandedly solve the problems of illiteracy and lack of access to books. But if a 10-year-old down the street can't get a ride to the public library and can find an Origami Yoda book in my Little Free Library that makes him happy, then I count it as a success.

P1420359 With Realtor Box, cropped 25%.jpg

The Toronto study says that the books in LFLs are poor quality. I know that is true of some LFLs, those with stewards who lack the time or resources to keep them well-stocked, or with communities that don't support them. But most of the ones I've visited contain a variety of great options. Mine (left) is often filled with popular, current books that look brand new, or tried and true classics in excellent condition — not with self-published poetry and outdated computer manuals. I know which kinds of books are popular at my LFL and which are not. Occasionally someone will put in something that I know will not be taken, so I remove it. Usually I give the discards to charity; if they're in unreadable condition, I will — reluctantly — throw them out or set them aside for book-related craft projects.

Nor is it true that Little Free Libraries are found only in upper middle-class suburbs. I've donated books to LFLs in front of Title 1 schools, inside clinics that cater to people who can't get health care anywhere else, at the general store on the outskirts of an Alaskan fishing community, and in dilapidated inner-city neighborhoods.

It's unclear how extensive the research was, and I can't speak about the locations of LFLs in Toronto. But in many parts of this country, they're in places where disadvantaged populations can take advantage of them. Even my own block families headed mostly by upper-middle class college graduates is just a block away from low-rent apartment buildings filled with immigrant families with non-English speaking parents, who can't afford to buy books for their kids — kids who speak and read English at school. (I offer Spanish-language books too, but not nearly as many of them as I'd like.)

The Toronto librarians are not critical of "rogue" little libraries — those that are not part of the Little Free Library network — but do not see a need for the nonprofit Little Free Library organization. I've got nothing against rogue LFLs — almost anything that gives more people access to free books is a good thing — but as a LFL steward, I appreciate having an organization to back me up.

I could have set up my little library on my own. But I like the LFL organization. I like the publicity and sense of legitimacy that the organization brings to all Little Free Libraries. I like the FB forum for exchange of ideas among stewards of registered LFLs, and the tips and instructions on the LFL site for how to build, install, maintain, and publicize one. And, if a friend hadn't offered to build me one, I would have taken advantage of the book boxes offered for sale on the Little Free Library website, because I lack the skills to build my own.

That's not to say that I have only good things to say about the Little Free Library organization. The price for registering a library has gotten high, And the online locator map is inadequate, not providing any way to map out a tour of Little Free Libraries in an area or even print out a list with registration numbers and addresses. But the organization is obviously run by people who have a passion for pursuing their goals, and I can't fault them for falling short of perfection.

The Toronto study cites an example of one locality that has used LFLs as an excuse not to put more money into actual libraries. It's a shame that this is happening in some places. But its not the fault of the Little Free Library organization; it's the fault of the forces that pressure governments not to spend money on making people's lives better, and of the governments that give in to that pressure.

Margaret Mead advised, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Little Free Libraries may not be a vehicle for changing the world, but we can use them to make our neighborhoods more neighborly places.