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A library movement that wants a book in every hand

Little Free Library seeks to have a book on every block, building relationships and inspiring a love of reading along the way

A Little Free Library in Anchorage, Alaska.
A Little Free Library in Anchorage, Alaska. (Geetika Jain)

Walking past the commercial grid of downtown Anchorage, Alaska, I stepped into a leafy residential neighbourhood to get a feel of what it might be like to live in a city with a “last-frontier” feel. After a squall, the sun had made an appearance, enticing people out into its coppery glow. They walked their dogs and gathered on the front porches of the affluent South Addition suburb, which is pincered by the cinematic snow-tipped Chugach Mountains and Cook Inlet. Stylish homes nestled alongside traditional log-houses with elk horns above the entrance doors.

I always like to see what people are trying to tell us about themselves even before we enter their homes. Things close to their hearts and aspects of their persona can be gleaned from the objects visible from the street.

A portico with a large rainbow flag was surely the home of a same-sex couple. A painted totem pole showcased solidarity with the Native Americans also known as the First People. Enormous purple cabbages planted in flower-beds alongside fuchsia and yellow begonias, geraniums and dahlias were a nod to the super-sized vegetables elicited from extra-long hours of daylight in summer.

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Around 15th Street, I came upon a particularly inviting garden, with a red bench next to a birdhouse-like box on a stump. I walked closer. Through the glass window, I could see a selection of books. A plaque on top said, FREE LITTLE LIBRARY—Take a book, leave a book.

The little house was painted red, white and blue. A bunch of flowers decorated the top. How could one not admire the generosity, the love of books, the winsome aesthetic and the neighbourliness of the people who lived there? In a world so preoccupied with crossing people and things, this household deserved a huge tick. I couldn’t stop to look at the books, for I had to walk the coastal path, but the image never left me.

I was reminded of a similar structure hanging on a wall in the ancient cave-city of Matera, Italy. That too had books in it, and a quick look at the pictures on my iPhone showed the words LIBRARIA LIBERA, and under that, Boîte a lire (take a book). LITTLE FREE LIBRARY. There had to be a connection between the two.

Back home, I looked up and read about the organisation and its origin—Todd Bol, an American from Hudson, Wisconsin, made a box out of his garage door, filled it with books and installed it on his front lawn as a tribute to his late mother, a teacher who loved books. He noticed that some others had done the same. In 2009, he set up Little Free Library (LFL), hoping to inspire a love of reading and building relationships. One can buy a box from their site, or build one’s own, and register on their site for $40 (around 3,000). Over 90,000 such libraries are registered across the world, and a map on the website shows their locations.

Miniature libraries can be installed absolutely everywhere—in the foyers of residential buildings, schools, doctors’ waiting rooms, hospitals, hotels, shops, airports, gyms, playgrounds, yoga centres.

Looking at the images, I encountered everything from basic plastic boxes to carefully executed works of art and flights of fancy. There’s a library in the stump of a tree, one in an old English phone booth, and another is a miniature replica of the owner’s house. Can anyone run with this idea and start their own library without registering with LFL?

Yes. While the words “Little Free Library” are a trademark, there is no trademark on wooden boxes. The whole idea is built on good faith, and it is Bol’s dream “to have a book on every block and every hand”. And as libraries around the planet closed due to the pandemic, these little libraries punched above their weight, bringing joy to many.

To build one of your own for the outdoors, the key thing is to have a pointed roof with three-inch overhangs so rainwater can slip away. It needs to be waterproofed with silicone along the seams, and painted with traditional house paint to keep the water out. Silicone matting on the shelves will protect the books from mould. Some people take their libraries indoors in bad weather, or cover them with a tarpaulin. The books one shares can be from one’s own collection, or procured from publishers and libraries upon request. The libraries are designed to perpetuate themselves, as borrowers often leave books of their own.

Miniature ones can be installed absolutely everywhere—in the foyers of residential buildings, schools, doctors’ waiting rooms, hospitals, hotels, shops, airports, gyms, playgrounds, yoga centres. The structures of the boxes reminded me of the spirit houses in Thailand, where the spirits of the land are welcomed along with food, water and incense.

The notion of looking out for strangers reminded me of the earthenware matkas (water vessels) people in India, Thailand and Myanmar place outside their homes so those passing by can quench their thirst. These ingeniously designed containers with lids stop things from falling in, while the long ladles purvey water. Slow evaporation from the porous vessel keeps the water cool. In Hinduism, it is believed that one gains punya, or merit in the afterlife, from good deeds. The fact that so many people around the world are on board with the idea of sharing their books points to an innate need within us to share what we have and feel good here and now in doing so.

Geetika Jain shares notable notions from around the world. She can be followed on Instagram @ Geetikaforest.

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