When the editors at Reader's Digest made a list of the "50 Surprising Reasons We Love America" for their July 2013 cover story, they placed Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi at No. 50, Bill Gates at No. 25, and at No. 11, sandwiched between sliced bread and tumbleweeds, was Little Free Library, a homespun-tribute-turned-international-phenomenon started by Rotary member Todd Bol.
People in 55 countries have installed more than 16,000 Lilliputian lending libraries, run on the premise of "take a book, return a book," since Bol built his first in 2009 in memory of his mother, a teacher who loved to read. Called an "international movement" by the New York Times and a "global sensation" by the Huffington Post, the libraries have garnered coverage from media outlets including Japanese public television and French and Italian fashion magazines.
Participation is simple: Mount a wooden box (many of them look like birdhouses) on a post in front of your home, workplace, or school. Fill it with books. Delight as neighbors stop by to browse your selections or leave books of their own.
Bibliophiles aren't the only ones willing to trade a patch of lawn for a box of books. Bol, of Hudson, Wisconsin, calls Little Free Library "a new canvas for community groups" – such as artists in New York City, who held a competition to design the boxes; inmates at a Wisconsin prison, who are constructing them as part of vocational training and community service; and corporations, which are building them on service days to give back to their communities. Rotary and Rotaract clubs from the United States to Canada, Mauritius to Ghana, are installing the libraries in their areas too.
About three-quarters of the operators build their own libraries; plans are available on the nonprofit's website, www.littlefreelibrary.org. The rest purchase readymade ones for $175 and up, depending on the model. The proceeds fund the staff, website, and educational outreach, as well as the organization's programs to build more libraries for people in need.
Bol became friends with Rick Brooks, an expert in community development, around the same time that he created his first library, a miniature red schoolhouse. The two kicked around ideas for social entrepreneurial opportunities and kept coming back to Bol's library. "We knew there was genuine interest in this," says Brooks, co-founder of Little Free Library. Bol, who had built several more and given them away, could no longer keep up with demand. He hired an Amish carpenter as the primary craftsman.
As the libraries gained attention, they began appearing everywhere. Bol and Brooks set a goal of creating 2,510 libraries – one more than philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who used his fortune to found libraries around the world. They hit that number in August 2012, a year and a half before their target date. Today, Bol and Brooks are looking for ways to harness the worldwide enthusiasm for the idea into a movement that goes beyond individual homeowners. "How do we use that energy to foster better relationships, improve literacy, and get neighbors to talk to one another?" Bol asks.
One way they're accomplishing this can be found at the Minneapolis/St. Paul chapter headquarters of Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly, where a library was recently erected. It's the first in a new partnership between Little Free Library and AARP to reach isolated elders.
"It's a gathering place. It's the perfect place for a library," says Jay Haapala, AARP associate state director for community outreach, of the new library. "Neighbors can come over, too, and find out what goes on here." As if on cue, an older gentleman walking by spots the blue and taupe library and strikes up a conversation with Greg Voss, Little Brothers executive director. "This is big for us," Voss says later. "We'll get some traffic. It will be more people at our doorstep."
A growing phenomenon
Little Free Library also has launched programs focused on Africa (Rotarians already have begun installing the libraries in Ghana) and on the 11,000 small U.S. towns without a public library. "Me and a shovel aren't going to do it ourselves," Bol says. "I can't think of anybody better than Rotarians. You guys could build a library in every small town in two months."
The Rotary Club of Fort Wayne, Indiana, is installing 100 miniature libraries to celebrate its 100th anniversary in June 2015. Just hours after the local newspaper ran an article about the first one, the club received six phone calls from people interested in participating. The club is paying the fee to register the boxes with Little Free Library; the signs for the libraries are personalized with the club's name. "The response has been overwhelming," says Candace Schuler, who is heading up the project. "People tell me, 'I want one of these in my community.' There's no doubt we're going to exceed our goal."
In November, Bol attended the National Book Awards; Little Free Library was among the winners of the National Book Foundation's 2013 Innovations in Reading Prize. Library Journal named him and Brooks "Movers and Shakers" for the year.
"I just feel fortunate that this happened," he says. "I feel like I discovered the Tin Man on the Yellow Brick Road, and I put in some oil and he started dancing. And I had the great pleasure to have been the person who put the oil in."
Adapted from a story in the March 2014 issue of The Rotarian