Building Community, Breaking Barriers: Little Free Libraries and Local Action in the United States

Nadine Irène Kozak

Abstract


A Little Free Library

Image 1: A Little Free Library. Image credit: Nadine Kozak.

Introduction

Little Free Libraries give people a reason to stop and exchange things they love: books. It seemed like a really good way to build a sense of community.

Dannette Lank, Little Free Library steward, Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, 2013 (Rumage)

Against a backdrop of stagnant literacy rates and enduring perceptions of urban decay and the decline of communities in cities (NCES, “Average Literacy”; NCES, “Average Prose”; Putnam 25; Skogan 8), legions of Little Free Libraries (LFLs) have sprung up across the United States between 2009 and the present. LFLs are small, often homemade structures housing books and other physical media for passersby to choose a book to take or leave a book to share with others. People have installed the structures in front of homes, schools, libraries, churches, fire and police stations, community gardens, and in public parks. There are currently 50,000 LFLs around the world, most of which are in the continental United States (Aldrich, “Big”). LFLs encompass building in multiple senses of the term; LFLs are literally tiny buildings to house books and people use the structures for building neighbourhood social capital. The organisation behind the movement cites “building community” as one of its three core missions (Little Free Library). Rowan Moore, theorising humans’ reasons for building, argues desire and emotion are central (16). The LFL movement provides evidence for this claim: stewards erect LFLs based on hope for increased literacy and a desire to build community through their altruistic actions. This article investigates how LFLs build urban community and explores barriers to the endeavour, specifically municipal building and right of way ordinances used in attempts to eradicate the structures. It also examines local responses to these municipal actions and potential challenges to traditional public libraries brought about by LFLs, primarily the decrease of visits to public libraries and the use of LFLs to argue for defunding of publicly provided library services. The work argues that LFLs build community in some places but may threaten other community services. 

This article employs qualitative content analysis of 261 stewards’ comments about their registered LFLs on the organisation’s website drawn from the two largest cities in a Midwestern state and an interview with an LFL steward in a village in the same state to analyse how LFLs build community. The two cities, located in the state where the LFL movement began, provide a cross section of innovators, early adopters, and late adopters of the book exchanges, determined by their registered charter numbers. Press coverage and municipal documents from six cities across the US gathered through a snowball sample provide data about municipal challenges to LFLs. Blog posts penned by practising librarians furnish some opinions about the movement. This research, while not a representative sample, identifies common themes and issues around LFLs and provides a basis for future research.

The act of building and curating an LFL is a representation of shared beliefs about literacy, community, and altruism. Establishing an LFL is an act of civic participation. As Nico Carpentier notes, while some civic participation is macro, carried out at the level of the nation, other participation is micro, conducted in “the spheres of school, family, workplace, church, and community” (17). Ruth H. Landman investigates voluntary activities in the city, including community gardening, and community bakeries, and argues that the people associated with these projects find themselves in a “denser web of relations” than previously (2). Gretchen M. Herrmann argues that neighbourhood garage sales, although fleeting events, build an enduring sense of community amongst participants (189). Ray Oldenburg contends that people create associational webs in what he calls “great good places”; third spaces separate from home and work (20-21). 

Little Free Libraries and Community Building

Emotion plays a central role in the decision to become an LFL steward, the person who establishes and maintains the LFL. People recount their desire to build a sense of community and share their love of reading with neighbours (Charter 4684; Charter 8212; Charter 9437; Charter 9705; Charter 16561). One steward in the study reported, “I love books and I want to be able to help foster that love in our neighbourhood as well” (Charter 4369). 

A Little Free Library, bench, water fountain, and dog’s water bowl for passersby to enjoy

Image 2: A Little Free Library, bench, water fountain, and dog’s water bowl for passersby to enjoy. Image credit: Nadine Kozak.

Relationships and emotional ties are central to some people’s decisions to have an LFL. The LFL website catalogues many instances of memorial LFLs, tributes to librarians, teachers, and avid readers. Indeed, the first Little Free Library, built by Todd Bol in 2009, was a tribute to his late mother, a teacher who loved reading (“Our History”). In the two city study area, ten LFLs are memorials, allowing bereaved families to pass on a loved one’s penchant for sharing books and reading (Charter 1235; Charter 1309; Charter 4604; Charter 6219; Charter 6542; Charter 6954; Charter 10326; Charter 16734; Charter 24481; Charter 30369).  

In some cases, urban neighbours come together to build, erect, and stock LFLs. One steward wrote: “Those of us who live in this friendly neighborhood collaborated to design[,] build and paint a bungalow themed library” to match the houses in the neighbourhood (Charter 2532). Another noted: “Our neighbor across the street is a skilled woodworker, and offered to build the library for us if we would install it in our yard and maintain it. What a deal!” (Charter 18677). Community organisations also install and maintain LFLs, including 21 in the study population (e.g. Charter 31822; Charter 27155).

Stewards report increased communication with neighbours due to their LFLs. A steward noted: “We celebrated the library’s launch on a Saturday morning with neighbors of all ages. We love sitting on our front porch and catching up with the people who stop to check out the books” (Charter 9673). Another exclaimed:

within 24 hours, before I had time to paint it, my Little Free Library took on a life of its own. All of a sudden there were lots of books in it and people stopping by. I wondered where these books came from as I had not put any in there. Little kids in the neighborhood are all excited about it and I have met neighbors that I had never seen before. This is going to be fun! (Charter 15981)

LFLs build community through social interaction and collaboration. This occurs when neighbours come together to build, install, and fill the structures. The structures also open avenues for conversation between neighbours who had no connection previously. Like Herrmann’s neighbourhood garage sales, LFLs create and maintain social ties between neighbours and link them by the books they share. Additionally, when neighbours gather and communicate at the LFL structure, they create a transitory third space for “informal public life”, where people can casually interact at a nearby location (Oldenburg 14, 288).

Building Barriers, Creating Community

The erection of an LFL in an urban neighbourhood is not, however, always a welcome sight. The news analysis found that LFLs most often come to the attention of municipal authorities via citizen complaints, which lead to investigations and enforcement of ordinances. In Kansas, a neighbour called an LFL an “eyesore” and an “illegal detached structure” (Tapper). In Wisconsin, well-meaning future stewards contacted their village authorities to ask about rules, inadvertently setting off a six-month ban on LFLs (Stingl; Rumage). Resulting from complaints and inquiries, municipalities regulated, and in one case banned, LFLs, thus building barriers to citizens’ desires to foster community and share books with neighbours.

Municipal governments use two major areas of established code to remove or prohibit LFLs: ordinances banning unapproved structures in residents’ yards and those concerned with obstructions to right of ways when stewards locate the LFLs between the public sidewalk and street.

In the first instance, municipal ordinances prohibit either front yard or detached structures. Controversies over these ordinances and LFLs erupted in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, in 2012; Leawood, Kansas, in 2014; Shreveport, Louisiana, in 2015; and Dallas, Texas, in 2015. The Village of Whitefish Bay banned LFLs due to an ordinance prohibiting “front yard structures,” including mailboxes (Sanburn; Stingl). In Leawood, the city council argued that an LFL, owned by a nine-year-old boy, violated an ordinance that forbade the construction of any detached structures without city council permission. In Shreveport, the stewards of an LFL received a cease and desist letter from city council for having an “accessory structure” in the front yard (LaCasse; Burris) and Dallas officials knocked on a steward’s front door, informing her of a similar breach (Kellogg).

In the second instance, some urban municipalities argued that LFLs are obstructions that block right of ways. In Lincoln, Nebraska, the public works director noted that the city “uses the area between the sidewalk and the street for snow storage in the winter, light poles, mailboxes, things like that.” The director continued: “And I imagine these little libraries are meant to congregate people like a water cooler, but we don’t want people hanging around near the road by the curb” (Heady). Both Lincoln in 2014 and Los Angeles (LA), California, in 2015, cited LFLs for obstructions. In Lincoln, the city notified the Southminster United Methodist Church that their LFL, located between the public sidewalk and street, violated a municipal ordinance (Sanburn). In LA, the Bureau of Street Services notified actor Peter Cook that his LFL, situated in the right of way, was an “obstruction” that Cook had to remove or the city would levy a fine (Moss). The city agreed at a hearing to consider a “revocable permit” for Cook’s LFL, but later denied its issuance (Condes).

Stewards who found themselves in violation of municipal ordinances were able to harness emotion and build outrage over limits to individuals’ ability to erect LFLs. In Kansas, the stewards created a Facebook page, Spencer’s Little Free Library, which received over 31,000 likes and messages of support. One comment left on the page reads: “The public outcry will force those lame city officials to change their minds about it. Leave it to the stupid government to rain on everybody’s parade” (“Good”). Children’s author Daniel Handler sent a letter to the nine-year-old steward, writing as Lemony Snicket, “fighting against librarians is immoral and useless in the face of brave and noble readers such as yourself” (Spencer’s). Indeed, the young steward gave a successful speech to city hall arguing that the body should allow the structures because “‘lots of people in the neighborhood used the library and the books were always changing. I think it’s good for Leawood’” (Bauman). Other local LFL supporters also attended council and spoke in favour of the structures (Harper). In LA, Cook’s neighbours started a petition that gathered over 100 signatures, where people left comments including, “No to bullies!” (Lopez). Additionally, neighbours gathered to discuss the issue (Dana). In Shreveport, neighbours left stacks of books in their front yards, without a structure housing them due to the code banning accessory structures. One noted, “I’m basically telling the [Metropolitan Planning Commission] to go sod off” (Friedersdorf; Moss). LFL proponents reacted with frustration and anger at the perceived over-reach of the government toward harmless LFLs. 

In addition to the actions of neighbours and supporters, the national and local press commented on the municipal constraints. The LFL movement has benefitted from a significant amount of positive press in its formative years, a press willing to publicise and criticise municipal actions to thwart LFL development. Stewards’ struggles against municipal bureaucracies building barriers to LFLs makes prime fodder for the news media. Herbert J. Gans argues an enduring value in American news is “the preservation of the freedom of the individual against the encroachments of nation and society” (50). The juxtaposition of well-meaning LFL stewards against municipal councils and committees provided a compelling opportunity to illustrate this value.

National media outlets, including Time (Sanburn), Christian Science Monitor (LaCasse), and The Atlantic, drew attention to the issue. Writing in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf critically noted:

I wish I was writing this to merely extol this trend [of community building via LFLs]. Alas, a subset of Americans are determined to regulate every last aspect of community life. Due to selection bias, they are overrepresented among local politicians and bureaucrats. And so they have power, despite their small-mindedness, inflexibility, and lack of common sense so extreme that they’ve taken to cracking down on Little Free Libraries, of all things. (Friedersdorf, n.p.)

Other columnists mirrored this sentiment. Writing in the LA Times, one commentator sarcastically wrote that city officials were “cracking down on one of the country’s biggest problems: small community libraries where residents share books” (Schaub). Journalists argued this was government overreach on non-issues rather than tackling larger community problems, such as income inequality, homelessness, and aging infrastructure (Solomon; Schaub). 

The protests and negative press coverage led to, in the case of the municipalities with front yard and detached structure ordinances, détente between stewards and councils as the latter passed amendments permitting and regulating LFLs. Whitefish Bay, Leawood, and Shreveport amended ordinances to allow for LFLs, but also to regulate them (Everson; Topil; Siegel). Ordinances about LFLs restricted their number on city blocks, placement on private property, size and height, as well as required registration with the municipality in some cases. Lincoln officials allowed the church to relocate the LFL from the right of way to church property and waived the $500 fine for the obstruction violation (Sanburn). 

In addition to the amendments, the protests also led to civic participation and community building including presentations to city council, a petition, and symbolic acts of defiance. Through this protest, neighbours create communities—networks of people working toward a common goal. This aspect of community building around LFLs was unintentional but it brought people together nevertheless.

Building a Challenge to Traditional Libraries?

LFL marketing and communication staff member Margaret Aldrich suggests in The Little Free Library Book that LFLs are successful because they are “gratifyingly doable” projects that can be accomplished by an individual (16). It is this ease of building, erecting, and maintaining LFLs that builds concern as their proliferation could challenge aspects of library service, such as public funding and patron visits. Some professional librarians are in favour of the LFLs and are stewards themselves (Charter 121; Charter 2608; Charter 9702; Charter 41074; Rumage). Others envision great opportunities for collaboration between traditional libraries and LFLs, including the library publicising LFLs and encouraging their construction as well as using LFLs to serve areas without, or far from, a public library (Svehla; Shumaker). 

While lauding efforts to build community, some professional librarians question the nomenclature used by the movement. They argue the phrase Little Free Libraries is inaccurate as libraries are much more than random collections of books. Instead, critics contend, the LFL structures are closer to book swaps and exchanges than actual libraries, which offer a range of services such as Internet access, digital materials, community meeting spaces, and workshops and programming on a variety of topics (American Library Association; Annoyed Librarian). One university reference and instruction librarian worries about “the general public’s perception and lumping together of little free libraries and actual ‘real’ public libraries” (Hardenbrook). By way of illustration, he imagines someone asking, “‘why do we need our tax money to go to something that can be done for FREE?’” (Hardenbrook). Librarians holding this perspective fear the movement might add to a trend of neoliberalism, limiting or ending public funding for libraries, as politicians believe that the localised, individual solutions can replace publicly funded library services. This is a trend toward what James Ferguson calls “responsibilized” citizens, those “deployed to produce governmentalized results that do not depend on direct state intervention” (172). In other countries, this shift has already begun. In the United Kingdom (UK), governments are devolving formerly public services onto community groups and volunteers. Lindsay Findlay-King, Geoff Nichols, Deborah Forbes, and Gordon Macfadyen trace the impacts of the 2012 Localism Act in the UK, which caused “sport and library asset transfers” (12) to community and volunteer groups who were then responsible for service provision and, potentially, facility maintenance as well. Rather than being in charge of a “doable” LFL, community groups and volunteers become the operators of much larger facilities. Recent efforts in the US to privatise library services as governments attempt to cut budgets and streamline services (Streitfeld) ground this fear. 

“Take a Book, Share a Book,” a Little Free Library motto

Image 3: “Take a Book, Share a Book,” a Little Free Library motto. Image credit: Nadine Kozak. 

LFLs might have real consequences for public libraries. Another potential unintended consequence of the LFLs is decreasing visits to public libraries, which could provide officials seeking to defund them with evidence that they are no longer relevant or necessary. One LFL steward and avid reader remarked that she had not used her local public library since 2014 because “I was using the Little Free Libraries” (Steward). Academics and librarians must conduct more research to determine what impact, if any, LFLs are having on visits to traditional public libraries. 

Conclusion

Little Free Libraries across the United States, and increasingly in other countries, have generated discussion, promoted collaboration between neighbours, and led to sharing. In other words, they have built communities. This was the intended consequence of the LFL movement. There, however, has also been unplanned community building in response to municipal threats to the structures due to right of way, safety, and planning ordinances. The more threatening concern is not the municipal ordinances used to block LFL development, but rather the trend of privatisation of publicly provided services. While people are celebrating the community built by the LFLs, caution must be exercised lest central institutions of the public and community, traditional public libraries, be lost. Academics and communities ought to consider not just impact on their local community at the street level, but also wider structural concerns so that communities can foster many “great good places”—the Little Free Libraries and traditional public libraries as well.

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Keywords


community; municipal policy; libraries; Little Free Library



Copyright (c) 2017 Nadine Irène Kozak

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