Little Free Libraries
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I thought it was a birdhouse.
As if introducing me to the home of a shy leprechaun, my sister-in-law took us slightly out of our way as we walked to a restaurant for dinner to give me my first experience with a Little Free Library. Within were a dozen or so books. I can’t remember if it featured the common instruction: Take a book, leave a book.
This little free library, in Toronto’s St. Clair neighbourhood, sits on the front lawn of a homeowner. I thought it was unique but saw another in Calgary’s Inglewood neighbourhood last week whimsically modeled as a miniature British phone booth. A bit of research tells me that these two little free libraries are just two one among more than 15,000 worldwide. This number far exceeds the original target of 2,510. The target number is significant as it is one more than the somewhat larger libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie’s attributed his own rise to one of the wealthiest people in the world to the access to books he’d been given by a benevolent retired military officer who made his personal library available once a week to working men. In his memoir, Carnegie explains that doing so was against common class attitudes of the times. It was seen as a potential danger to have an educated working class.
The idea of the Little Free Library started in 2009 with Tod Bol of Wisconsin, who created the first one in honour of his late mother–she had been a schoolteacher. The shape of his box was like a one-room schoolhouse with a steeple. The idea quickly spread and one suspects some are simply built as witty/eccentric woodworking projects. They all share one thing in common with Carnegie’s libraries: open stacks. Carnegie’s first five libraries followed the custom of the time, with closed stacks. One would have to find one of the library’s books by first looking up a card and surrendering it to a librarian. . Carnegie changed the policy to open stacks in order to save costs by lowering the number of librarians that needed to be employed. There was also the problem of a librarian who might or might not look for it.
My confidence in this last statement is based on a year I spent at a university in southern China. Because I could not read Chinese, along with the other foreign teachers were allowed to browse the stacks ourselves. We quickly became unofficial librarians ourselves as we observed library staff who couldn’t be bothered to find a book or who harboured petty objections to doing so saunter to a back row and idly clean their nails for a suitable pause before returning to tell the crushed Chinese teacher or student that the book wasn’t there.
Armed with a list of call numbers, we would check out the books they wanted.
The system was also in place at the British Library when I did my doctoral research in the old and magnificent round reading room, but I don’t recall requesting any book and not having it delivered.
So, a little free library with open stacks. It’s not threatening, it takes only a moment to look, and I imagine that it builds neighbourliness, particularly when you find yourself reading a novel and bumping into its donor on the same street.
I’m sure Andrew Carnegie would be pleased.