Meet The Little Free Librarians

Coming to a lawn near you: a Little Free Library. You may have seen them already, little all-weather boxes with peaked roofs perched up on top of a post and, usually, with a Plexiglas window so you can see what’s inside. This is the real sharing economy – FREE BOOKS! Take one, leave one, no library card necessary, no due date, and no overdue fines. A sign of the times? Or a sign of things to come? Perhaps a bit of both.

But who is behind them? I wanted to find out, so I went out to the half-dozen free libraries or so that I could get to easily on a bike – the Annex is full of them, with new ones popping up all the time (you can search an interactive map of the Free Libraries in your area) – and asked the homeowners, called ‘stewards’ in movement parlance, to answer a short questionnaire.

Here are two of the responses I got, from Naomi Jardine and Ryan Penn.

 1. What motivated you to put up a Little Free Library? Do you feel like you are part of a 'movement'?

Naomi: “We could see that the Little Free Library is a powerful community builder, and the larger work of community building is the ‘movement’ that I find so inspiring.

“Three years ago I thought it would be fun to start a block party on our street, I threw some pamphlets in mailboxes on our block and asked if anyone was interested – I was excited to get a big response, so I organized a "get to know you" event and we formed our first block party organizing team. I was completely blown away by the talents and skills of the people on our block and the variety of resources they all brought to the table. We had everything we needed to pull off an incredible party, we had about 250 people turn out for it, and formed great lasting friendships with our neighbours.

“It's amazing what has blossomed out of that, people taking care of each other on the street, visiting when someone is sick, sharing skills and tools, impromptu fun get-togethers – all it takes is some way for people to connect with each other. There is a lot of cultural diversity on our block and it's amazing how sharing food and experiences together, even with language barriers, has helped to connect us all. It's just a party, but it's an incredible starting point for us to understand and care about each other, and work together to solve challenges that we face as a community.

“So the Little Free Library is another way to build community by sharing our interests with each other through books, and we decided to launch our library on the day of our third annual block party. We even had a ribbon cutting ceremony and a flash mob dance as part of the celebration. My husband Doug has mad carpentry skills, he built the library from scratch and people were so happy with how it turned out.”

Ryan: “I saw one or two of them, went to the web site and fell in love with the idea.

“I am pretty handy and like building things. The Library was made of mostly scrap and left over material. I had some and gather some more from garbage and renovation dumpsters. The paint was new but the hardware is from the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store. I have built two of them. I built one for a friend who is near Rosedale Subway. I totally feel like part a movement to reduce waste, ownership and increase literacy and sharing.

One poster said: The library you made has touched so many people… Great job!" And Ryan shared several Instagram posts of his Little Library liked by hundreds of people: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

2. How long has your Little Free Library been up? Does the pattern of use change throughout the year? How?

Ryan: “Since the beginning of the summer. I have not noticed a pattern based on the time of the year yet.”

Naomi: “We launched our library on June 6th, 2015, and I don't think I've noticed a real pattern of use through the year, it seems pretty consistent. It was definitely frequented a lot at the beginning since it was a new thing on our street and everyone was interested – the turnaround of the books was amazing – every few days there were a completely different set of books in there. It's still being used many times a day – we always see people stopping to look.”

3. How has it been received by neighbours?

Ryan: “They are very happy and have provide great feedback. They are happy to have somewhere to bring the books that they are finished with. Some have commented that they have met new friends in front of the Library.”

Naomi: “Like I said we've had a ton of interest and use by our neighbours and by people passing through... we don't have any strict rules about replacing the book you're taking with another one, someone may take a book one day and bring a book another day – or if someone takes one and never comes back, there are others that bring books, it all works out. There have only been a few times when the books have dwindled and I've put an email out to our neighbourhood list to ask if anyone has some to donate, and then it instantly fills up again.

“Right now it's packed with books. It really feels like a little hub for our community, it's so interesting to see what peoples' interests are, and what they like to read. We didn't quite grasp how important it was to people until our library was vandalized about 6 weeks after we put it up. (More on that later).”

4. Do you have any sense of the demographics of who is using it? (Is it mostly neighbourhood people, or do you get the sense anyone makes a special trip into the neighbourhood to use it?) Any observations about age, gender, etc.?

Ryan: “Mostly local people in the neighborhood. Some people that are just passing by. I have picked up some great books too. Use by men and women. There are children’s books and all types.”

Naomi: “We've had people of all ages and gender stop to use the library, including kids – it seems to have universal interest, including across cultures – I even found some books in Chinese and Hindi that have circulated in and out of there.”

5. What is the most interesting or surprising book you have found inside?

Ryan: “Nothing too surprising…. I did find a bunch of really good cookbooks and was happy but a bit surprised someone would want to get rid of that.

“People are also leaving DVD movies…they go quickly. I have seen people come by every day.”

Naomi: “I think the huge variety of books you get is the most interesting thing – everything including cookbooks, kids books, spirituality and self help, all kinds of novels, trivia books, how-to books, travel guides, cartoons, comedy books, art/photography books, biographies. I just saw a history book in there about what life was like for women in the 17th century. Lots of cool stuff.”

6. What is the most interesting interaction you have had with a user of the library?

Ryan: “Some tourists from Michigan stopped and we started talking. They thought that Canada was truly amazing that we would have these libraries all over. I told them it is a US based organization. It was amusing.”

Naomi: “The most inspiring and heartwarming interactions came when our library was burned in the middle of the night by vandals, about 6 weeks after we put it up. The outpouring of support was overwhelming. The most touching moment for me was when we were cleaning up the burned books the next morning, feeling pretty down. People gathered around, expressing how upset they were and how much they loved the library. A teenager on a bike rode up and saw the burned shell of the library, he looked genuinely shocked, and said we have to rebuild it – he gave me a five dollar bill. And a 5-year-old on our street walked up with three dollars from his piggy bank to go toward the costs. Within a couple days we had enough donations from everyone on the street to be able to build a new library.”

7. There have been various news items about vandalism of Little Free Libraries. Have you had any problems of this kind? How did you handle them? Did it sour you at all on the idea?

Ryan: “No. There are some [crappy] people in the world but mostly good people. Karma is a [killer]! Bad things sometimes happen.”

Naomi: “When the police rang our doorbell at 3 am and we saw the library up in flames, we were gobsmacked. Our neighbours, who were the first to see the fire and call 911, were out there with us on the street as we watched the firefighters drag all the sopping burned books out onto the ground, and we all felt pretty upset and disheartened. We thought that was that, it was a nice experiment but obviously it's not going to work. But the next day we were just blown away by the response of our neighbours – they were so dismayed and expressed such caring and beautiful sentiments about it – everyone told us we have to rebuild it right away, and donations poured in. The story made the news and we had even more offers of support and books from the larger community.

“I think after we got over the resentment toward the vandals, I actually started feeling like what happened was a kind of gift, because it showed us what a strong caring community we have here – I think we all felt so much closer because of it. It only took a few weeks for Doug to build a new library, bigger and better than the original, and since then it has been in use constantly – we've stopped worrying about it being vandalized again, and if it does, we'll just rebuild and keep going. Because we know that destructive actions by one or two people is completely outweighed by the overwhelming majority of good, kind, caring people out there.”

8. What are your hopes for the future of the project?

Naomi: “We hope that in the future anyone thinking about being destructive will feel welcome to take a book instead, because the Little Free Library is there for everyone.”

Ryan: “More libraries everywhere. Simple.”

So, what about you? Are you ready to turn some of your home library into a public resource? If you’re ready to become a steward of your own Little Free Library, check out the movement’s website. But you don't have to do it through the official 'Free Little Library' movement, as two of the little libraries – or 'Book Exchanges' – above have not. All it takes is some wood, some elbow grease, and some faith in your fellow humans.