Tiny libraries spread joy of books widely

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Carol Sorgen

Paula Fazio installed a Little Free Library in front of her Montgomery Hills home several years ago. She finds children’s books are the most popular titles that people borrow.
Photo courtesy of Paula Fazioa

It’s a giant birdhouse! It’s a mailbox! No…it’s a library? Yes, those adorable little “houses” popping up around town are libraries: Little Free Libraries to be exact.

The Little Free Library movement began in 2009, when Tod Bol of Hudson, Wisc., built the first one as a tribute to his mother — a former teacher and lifelong avid reader. The sign on the house-shaped box said “Free Books,” and that first miniature library has given rise to more than 25,000 Little Free Libraries, now in every state and more than 80 countries.

How it works

According to LittleFreeLibrary.org, the concept is simple: A Little Free Library (LFL) is simply a container of books placed in an accessible spot, such as outside a home, in a community center, etc.

Many are designed to look like various styles of homes, and are placed on posts set at eye level, like an oversized bird house. Anyone who walks by can stop and browse the books inside.

If you see a book you like, feel free to take it home. Want to share some of your already-read books? Drop them off. The LFL motto is “Take a Book, Return a Book,” and that includes children’s books, philosophy books, or the latest best-selling mystery.

Charles Village resident Zora Salisbury installed an LFL in front of her home last year. It had been a Mother’s Day gift from her children, who knew she was enamored of the idea.

“I’ve loved the concept of the Little Free Library since I first heard about them several years ago,” said Salisbury, adding that she’s also a great fan of libraries in general. She keeps about 15 to 20 books at a time in her teensy library.

One of her neighbors has taken it upon herself to make sure it is always well-stocked with children’s books. “One little boy came running down the street the other day saying, ‘Thank you for my poop book,’” Salisbury laughed.

Additionally, “every kind of book” has found its way there — from current mysteries (the Scandinavian noir mysteries are especially popular now), to poetry, current novels, even classical literature.

“One day I saw a book by [the French philosopher/writer] Albert Camus, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s going to be there a long time,’” said Salisbury. But when she went to look the next time, she was surprised to see that “it was gone!”

Salisbury said sometimes the borrowers return the same book and sometimes they donate others. She herself donates books given to her by friends and family, or those she picks up at The Book Thing (a used book location in Baltimore where all books are free; see www.bookthing.org).

There’s no accurate count of how many LFLs there are in Baltimore. LittleFreeLibrary.org invites library “stewards” to register their libraries, but it has been so overwhelmed that the list is not up-to-date.

Artistic boxes

While many LFLs are located at residential homes, there are other locations. For example, the Village Learning Place (VLP) is also home to an LFL. This Charles Village independent non-profit library houses educational programs, enrichment opportunities, and informational resources for residents of Charles Village and the city of Baltimore generally.

VLP became part of the LFL project in early 2013. Those who spearheaded the project locally came up with the idea to ask local artists to design LFLs to be auctioned off at VLP’s annual fundraiser, “Read between the Wines.” Five artists were chosen, but after the LFLs were auctioned, the buyers donated them back to the VLP.

Over the past two years, those little libraries have been making their way into the community. The first two placed can now be found in the Abell Green Space and at the Village Learning Place, in VLP’s community garden. You’ll find others at Wyman Park (29th and Charles) and the Baltimore Food Coop Garden (on 22nd and St. Paul). Another decorative LFL lives at Stoney Run Trail.

Paula Fazio became intrigued by the LFL movement several years ago and decided to put one by her Montgomery Hills home. “What a neat idea,” she thought when first learning of the micro-libraries.

She ordered one from the organization’s website, had it installed, but ran into some trouble after a year’s worth of weather events rotted the wood. A neighbor rebuilt it for her, and she was back in business.

“People don’t always understand the concept at first,” said Fazio, an information technology director at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “I think some thought it might be used for drug drops!” It soon became apparent, however, that that wasn’t the case.

Children’s books are the most popular items in Fazio’s library, but there is also a steady stream of bestsellers, “Oprah books,” magazines, even books on tape.

Every year Fazio holds a party for her community and invites guests to bring books. She said it turns out most of those attending are her friends — “I had hoped it would become more of a community event” — but they have a good time, and replenish the book supply.

For Salisbury, of Charles Village, the feedback she gets from neighbors and borrowers more than repays her for her efforts. “It’s a beautiful library,” she said. “It’s such a joyful thing.”

To find out more, visit www.littlefreelibrary.org or check out the organization’s new book, The Little Free Library Book: Take a Book,Return a Book, by Margaret Aldrich.

Pre-built libraries in various styles can be purchased at the website for prices ranging from $149 to $1,499, though of course, if you’re handy, you can build your own.