BY MARK GUARINO
Since Liz Siegel and Greg Jacobs live two blocks from the Sulzer Regional Library in Lincoln Square, logic would dictate that there really is no need for their sidewalk kiosk stocked with free books for anyone.
But there is.
The couple is part of the Little Free Library movement, a grass-roots wave of people around the world who are dedicating time and money to maintaining a free-standing book exchange on their front lawns, all in the name of literacy and community building. “I love the conversations with strangers it sparked,” says Siegel, 46, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago. She, her husband and two daughters will often sit on their porch and talk to strangers about the books they might leaf through. They’ve met neighbors they had never met in their many years living in Lincoln Square.
Oftentimes they will find bags of book donations at the door, which they’ll use to keep the 40-unit library stocked with books Siegel feels people need most — children’s books, classics, contemporary fiction and nonfiction. The library’s revolving stock since June 2014: 300 books and counting.” I love physical books. It’s such a great way of bringing people together,” she says.
Little Free Library came about when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wis., was forced into early retirement at age 52 and needed a life change. He started making miniature houses in the garage. One of them he filled with books and stuck it on his front lawn in 2009 as a tribute to June Agnes Bol, his mother, once beloved by neighborhood children as an after-school tutor. “She always had a way that made people feel best about themselves. She never sat by somebody who wasn’t a friend of hers in 10 minutes,” he says.
The woodworking hobby would have ended there, but then neighbors started requesting their own little libraries. A global movement was born.
The organization became a nonprofit in 2012, and today about 25,000 little libraries have exchanged about 40 million books. Bol’s staff of 11 people operates out of a 4,000-square-foot facility in Hudson where they sell, build and ship the libraries, or mail out the “steward’s pack and charter sign” the organization sells to maintain its global network. People who make their own libraries from scratch are encouraged to personalize their libraries. Social media plays a big role in spreading awareness.
“If books are your heart and soul, you want to share that with your friends and neighbors. It becomes something that excites people,” says Bol, 59, who characterizes the little libraries as serving a “primal need” that people have even outside books: “We want to connect.”
Ann and John Turner in Roscoe Village say their Little Free Library introduced them to people of all age groups in their neighborhood — from young single professionals to seniors who were relatively homebound — while aiming to serve the children on their way to the Chicago Public school down the street from the Turners’ home. Since September 20014, Ann Turner, 43, says that about 500 books have rotated through their library.
“It creates a vehicle for conversation,” she says. “What we’ve been finding is kids from all over are jumping at it. We see them jump out of a car, grab a book, and put something else in. This has been an overwhelmingly positive community-building experience that we as a family did not anticipate.”
The Little Free Library organization warns potential library owners to check with local zoning laws first, based on the story of Spencer Collins, a 9-year-old boy in Leawood, Kan., who was ordered to remove his library in 2014 due to a city ordinance that prohibited single detached buildings. While the ordinance was changed to allow the library, similar instances have cropped up. In January in Shreveport, La., the city fined one couple $500 and ordered them to take down their library because it violated a local zoning law. The law was amended in February, and the library survived.
As the libraries become better known, Bol says, municipalities are learning that it creates more harm than good to try to prevent them.
“Going after a Little Free Library is like going after a lemonade stand: You’re not going to win. The community gets outraged,” he says.
For library owners, there is often a curatorial pride in making sure the books they offer meet a neighborhood need. Jenny Jarosz of Brookfield, who is retired, says she leaves a notepad and pencil for users to leave suggestions. In the beginning, she would purchase books from the local library used book sale, but with donations she now has shopping bags of books on her basement pool table that are waiting to be put out. She promotes her libraries through fliers around town and at the nearby train station, as she’s noticed that daily commuters often stop by to pick up something to read.
Not only has the library become her hobby, but Jarosz, 77, says as a library volunteer she has learned that not everyone has time to visit the library, so she is plugging the gaps in her community, especially for local children.
“It just makes me feel good people are taking little books for little kids, even if I don’t get them back. It’s encouraging little ones to read,” she says.
For that reason, Bol sees the libraries as a growing movement to eliminate illiteracy, both in marginalized pockets of the world and even in more affluent areas where it is assumed that everyone reads. “We eradicated polio and measles; we put electricity across the country. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t get everyone reading,” he says.
The majority of Little Free Libraries are in North America (275 are located in Illinois alone), but the organization’s map shows that they also have popped up across the world and in such far-flung places as BeiChang Village, China; Lakki Marwat, Pakistan; and Pointe-Noire, Congo, where the adult literacy rates of those countries are, respectively, 95 percent, 55 percent and 61 percent, according to 2013 UNESCO data. The lowest literacy rates are in Sub-Saharan Africa and in South and West Asia.
While literacy rates for adults and young people continue to increase, adult women are suffering the most: Since 2000, women have represented about 64 percent of the global illiterate population.
Bol says the future of the Little Free Library movement depends on transitioning from awareness to mobilization. Already, Fortune 500 companies have become involved in donating libraries and books to underserved areas of the country. In April, Coffee House Press in Minneapolis will publish “The Little Free Library Book,” a book that documents library owners from all over the world. He even has partnered with Dave Finkel, executive producer of the Fox comedy “New Girl,” to promote “Whatcha Readin’,” a phrase that they hope will become the equivalent of Nike’s “Just Do It” in everyday public discourse.
For Bol, the goal is to reboot the values that make a community whole.
“The media, the politics, the religions tend to report on polarization. But that’s not who we are,” he says. “The dialogue is wrong, we know it’s wrong, so it’s not a matter of throwing a bigger rock. It’s how do we work together and fix things?”