Friday, September 13, 2013

the neighborhood library movement

Like a Midwest winter, a Southwest summer can bring on cabin fever and an intense questioning of nature.  Whether it’s after a season of heavy snow and ice and bone-knocking cold or after months and months of a high, scorching sun, we tend to ask the same thing: Why does it have to go on so long?  That’s why, when I woke to a sky draped in gray, fluffy cloud cover and lower than normal temps, I didn’t think twice.  I slipped into some walking shoes and hit the pavement.  And then the most lovely thing happened.  No, not rain, but a discovery just as important, and right here in my own neighborhood. 

I’d seen the box before, in late spring, on bike rides.  I thought it was built, like a mailbox, for delivery people to place packages.  I’d also seen it when I drove past in the car, and through its front window, I’d noticed…books?  Surely not books.  But out on my walk and just steps away, I could see that there were books and a typed note taped to the front.  Placed at the end of my neighbor’s driveway, I had to muster up courage to be nosy and go have a look, and as soon as I saw the word micro-library I got so excited.  The box was a neighborhood library!  And right here.  On a cool summer morning.  In my neighborhood.

Now, if you’ve heard of the Little Free Library movement, you’ll find my delight a bit absurd.  But I hadn’t heard of LF libraries, and what happened over the next few weeks still has me smiling.

First, I finished my walk, but that micro-library stayed with me all day.  I told everyone I talked to about it, and by that evening, I wanted to find the neighbor who ran the micro-library for an interview on the Writes blog.  As some of my readers know, I operate the fRead Project and writing posts about how people swap, trade, and share books goes hand-in-hand with my philanthropy efforts.

So, I set to work, knowing my initial contact would need to be by phone or email since the home had a private entrance.  Luckily, I was able to piece together enough information to guess who the library belonged to and found contact information online, and from there, my micro-library neighbor introduced me to two other area “librarians”.  We swapped emails and phone calls, and slowly, I was introduced to the idea of the Little Free Library and its offshoot the micro-library.

For those who haven’t heard of the Little Free Library movement, it began in Wisconsin and has crossed borders and oceans into other states and countries.  The idea is to put up a LFL box in a public place (in front of your house, office, community garden, etc.) and allow users to give and take from the library.  The LFL website provides both How-To forbuilding your own or premade (and quite beautiful) libraries that people can purchase.  The box usually has a window in the door, so users can see what’s available, and though readers can borrow and trade, like a traditional library, it’s perfectly acceptable to take and keep books, with the understanding that one would donate back to the library at some point.  The micro-library holds all the same tenets, but operates outside the LFL movement, which allows library owners to register their box and have it on the LFL map.

The really interesting part of the LFL and micro-libraries are the people.  The box managers and the users tend to be charitable people wanting to share not just the books, but ideas, art, conversation, and fun.  Below, I’ve interviewed the three neighborhood library owners I’ve been corresponding with, and I think you’ll see how the library was a natural next step for each, who are and have been actively involved in their respective communities.

Ted Decker
Art consultant, Independent curator, and Micro-library operator

What inspired you to put up your micro-library?

I had seen two others in different neighborhoods at homes of friends. One of these people "volunteered" her husband to make one for me.  I love the idea of micro-libraries like this in neighborhoods.

So, a friend inspired you, but did you have a certain vision for the way your neighbors would use it?  Did you wonder if you'd find them chatting about books over the fence?
I envisioned an honor system among neighbors, that anonymous borrowing and donating was really what it is about and that it would be sustained in that way.  I would like if people in the neighborhood would chat about it and spread the word, and perhaps even that a neighborhood book club might be generated.
Once, someone took all of them, perhaps to re-sell at a yard sale or, even better, to read. Either is fine.  I am always going through my books and some I want to get back into circulation.  I thought the micro-library would be a good way to do it and to build community in our neighborhood.  When I first installed it and a notification was sent out about it, there was a marvelous response.

What kind of books would you like to see added to the library?
I would like there to be a diverse selection especially in books for children and young people to read, in books about culture – contemporary and past, and some books by international and young authors.
Did you come across any good books this summer that will go into the library?
I have acquired several books by Latin American authors including Mário Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, José Martí, Roberto Bolano, Clarice Lispector, Jorge Amado, Gabriel García Márquez, and Bernardo Carvalho, plus some classics like 1984, Brave New World, books by E.M. Forster and Christopher Hitchens.  As soon as I plow through them, they will go into the Library.
If you were going to refer a neighbor to only one book, which book would it be?
Good question that I can’t answer with the title of just one book. I would encourage a neighbor and anyone to read books by international authors especially those that win prizes (a place to start looking) and a general, survey-like book about art history since it parallels and documents what was happening at various time in history. Ideally, since these art history books have numerous images, it is a cross-generational activity – parents or grandparents with children and young adults, and it opens up opportunities for lively conversation.

Sherrie Zeitlin
Clay artist, Founder The Art Resource Center, & Little Free Library Operator

Writes Note: The Art Resource Center is a non-profit that collects and gives away art supplies free of charge.  Donation information is on website, and please like the Art Resource Center on Facebook

How did you come across the Little Free Library movement?

I saw an article several years ago in the NY Times and then in the LA Times and told my husband to please make took years for the project to come to fruition.

The Little Free Library movement started in Wisconsin and we have donated to this organization to be included on their worldwide map.  It was their desire to build and encourage others to build as well.  They wanted to have more libraries then Carneige!  We put ours up about six months ago…it has solar lighting for nighttime viewing and is well used in our ‘hood.  All the books we seeded the Library with are long gone, but those in the ‘hood give and take liberally.

Did you build your own library, order one, and would you tell more about the decision to add solar lighting?

My husband, Ron Landon, built the library and surprised me with the solar lights.  I have a friend in the neighborhood who only comes at night! 

Do you find neighbors standing and talking "over the fence" about books they've gotten from your library?  Are children and teens using it?

It is remarkable the diversity of the people who come.  We can not keep kids books in stock.  As soon as I put some out they are gone.  Others put many, many books in the library.  Over the fence (literally) my husband heard a middle schooler whose friends were pressuring her to get going say, "Wait, wait I have to see what's in the library today! "  My husband was working in his shop with the doors open.  He said five cars stopped to check out the library.  We have a very mobile ‘hood and many walkers take books.  Several boys have asked Ron for more Popular Mechanics and Popular Science mags.  Ron subscribes and puts his old issues out.

What kind of books would you like to see added to the library?  

Kids books especially early readers and young adults...but picture books go fast.

Do you have a favorite book from your lifetime?

NO!!!!!!!!!  I love to read and usually what I am currently reading is my fav.

Did you come across any good books this summer that will go into the library?

I was looking for something to read and found two copies of The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon.  One was a first edition!  I gave one to my daughter and read the other.  Actually I found them both in the LFL.  It was much better then I anticipated!  Reading J.K. Rowlings’s The Cuckoos Calling right now and that will go in!  Written under penman Robert Galbraith.  Also reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.  

If you were going to refer a neighbor to only one book, which book would it be?

Not possible...probably would depend upon the person.

Rita Dickinson
Former educator and cellist, Micro-library operator

Did you build your own library, order one, and would you tell more about your decision to operate one in your neighborhood?

Tom and I have two micro-library boxes.  Tom built both, one for our home in Phoenix and the other for our second home in Malibou Lake, California.  The California library services about twenty homes and neighbors often gather around and chat at the box.  The Phoenix library is used by the thirteen houses on our cul-de-sac.  At one point, our neighborhood had been part of a movement by the mayor to become a Front Porch City.

So, possessing that kind of neighborly spirit, it’s not a surprise that your neighbors would use a library.

Yes, and the library has become more than a library.  Families are using it as a message center, and recently, one of the neighborhood kids asked for items to complete a school project and the library became a storage spot for all the needed items until he could come collect.

We’ve had people ask us if the box is a delivery spot for the local public library, and with more books coming in than going out, once a year we do a clean-up or have library sale. 

As for Tom building the box, he’s made them for friends, a librarian we know and others, and he’s willing to build more. 

Writes Note: if you live in the Phoenix area and would like to contact Tom about building a library, leave a comment below and I’ll put you in touch.

What kind of books would you like to see added to the library?  

Books that would draw kids.

After my other interviews, I wondered how library operators felt about parents monitoring what books kids take from the box.  Do you feel you have to be mindful of the collection so children take age-appropriate reading materials?   

Like other borrowing or book buying, parents are responsible for monitoring the books their kids read.

Do you have a favorite book from your lifetime?

Joys and Sorrows: Reflections by Pablo Casals (by Albert E. Kahn).  He was cellist, and this is his biography.

Did you come across any good books this summer that will go into the library?

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor.  It’s autobiographical, but not political.

Writes Note: There’s also a lovely children’s book Sonia Sotomayor: AJudge Grows in the Bronx by Jonah Winter, Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez (Available Spanish version: La juez que crecio en el Bronx)

I'd like to thank all my guests today for offering their time for the interviews, but also for doing their part to spread the joy of books in their communities. When I went out on my library picture-taking drive with a friend, we took as many books as we could gather up. We spread them out between the libraries, and I included a copy of wildflowers for each box...a fRead book drop of a different kind. And whether you find (or start) a Little Free or micro-library in your neighborhood, or you donate in other ways, keep sharing books!

Thanks for stopping by the Writes blog, and remember, there are giveaways going on now.  Click here to find out more.


  1. What a remarkable gift these neighborhood library operators are giving to their communities. I would love to meet these people....I bet they have some wonderful stories to tell. I noticed that the general request is for children books of all ages. I'm going to tear into my bookshelves and see what I can find to donate. And a trip to the used book store may help as well.

    I'm glad you took a walk on that cool morning and researched that little box filled with books. Most of us would not have known about these little libraries if you hadn't.

  2. It's so funny that you posted about this because this week for my crime mapping class I am studying social disorganization theory. I think that these libraries are great ideas and would hopefully help to actually combat crime because it brings about socialization in the neighborhood (one of the main keys to preventing crime). Yet I think that my fear always over shadows a project like that because of what "might" happen (fear is a known cause the belief crime in areas it may not be). Anyways I think it's a great idea and it's important to make sure it spread to lower income neighborhoods, where it's more challenging for parents to get to the library.

  3. Shirley, Thanks for dropping by and leaving your comments. I think your idea to pick up and then donate books from used (and local :)) book stores is a great one. Thank you for sharing that with Writes Readers.

    I donate books yearly at my writing organization's (SCBWI) regional conference, and in the past I've donated to Kids to Need to Read ( out of Mesa, AZ. I also recently joined First Book (, which sets up donations for educators and schools who need books. The neat thing about the neighborhood libraries is how CLOSE to home it all is, and now that I know they exist, I plan to drop off books...especially picture books and MG and YA novels...whenever I get the chance.

  4. Savannah, Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Interesting to know the stats on how neighborhood socialization affects crime. And yes, I agree, micro and Little Free libraries would seem to encourage socializing. One of my interview participants indicated that she'd seen a library in one of the lower income areas in New Orleans, looking well-loved, well-used, and well-cared for. Books change attitudes and lives, that's for sure, and that's why sharing literature, no matter how it's done, is so important. Again, thanks for stopping by to comment.

  5. What a great idea! I love this. Thank you for sharing the info. I visited the Art Resources Center facebook page, and wow - what another great movement! This has definitely sparked some ideas that will bounce around in my head for future action.

  6. Heidi, Thanks for stopping by, and thank you for checking out the Art Resources Center! You're is great. I'm so happy to have been introduced to it myself. I'm glad you're brainstorming ways to support them in the future. Keep us posted.