Little Free Library has big ambitions for literacy & public art

If your neighborhood is home to a Little Free Library, you might be lulled into thinking that it’s been there forever — or for several decades, at least. The small sidewalk libraries’ “take a book, return a book” premise and standard wooden structure are simple, low-tech, even quaint.

But Little Free Library, the nonprofit, has existed just since 2010, and there’s nothing old-fashioned about its reach or ambition. The organization has been covered by news outlets internationally and honored by the National Book Association, the American Library Association, and the White House. A recent estimate put the total of Little Free Libraries over 25,000, in more than 75 countries. By 2017, they hope to make that number 50,000.

To be fair, nobody was thinking in the tens of thousands when Little Free Library began. It started when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin created a schoolhouse-style library with a “Free Books” sign to honor his mother, a former teacher and lover of reading. After installing the library in his yard and watching it bring his neighbors together, Bol teamed up with Rick Brooks of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The two of them began building and distributing more Little Free Libraries, seeing the potential for spreading literacy and bringing communities together on a larger scale.

That’s why Little Free Library’s aspirations go beyond numbers: The libraries quickly became a way to increase access to books and information, while encouraging conversations between neighbors who might never otherwise interact.

“We’ve had so many people tell us that they met more people in a week after putting a Little Free Library in than they ever had before,” says Kris Huson, the organization’s director of marketing.

As Little Free Library shoots for 50,000, they’re also planning strategies to get the libraries where books and connections between neighbors are needed most. They’re working on more partnerships with school districts, orphanages, and other nonprofits, as well as with companies that can provide funding. They want to place more Little Free Libraries in book deserts — areas where free or inexpensive books are scarce, where traditional libraries are far away or hard to access from public transportation.

The organization has also learned the value of an on-the-ground information delivery system, even beyond books.

“We have people who share heirloom tomato seeds. We have people who share their artwork,” Huson says. “There’s a credit union in Wisconsin that uses them as a place to introduce financial literacy. There’s been talk about using something similar to Little Free Libraries for public health information.”

The particulars of how a Little Free Library is used are up to the owner, or steward, and the people who find and leave books there. Stewards can purchase a charter for their Little Free Library on the organization’s website, including an official sign and inclusion on the worldwide registry.

The site sells the actual libraries, too, in styles that range from the basic slanted-roof house model to a red London phone booth. Sales of the libraries account for most of Little Free Library’s income as a nonprofit.

But becoming a Little Free Library steward doesn’t require buying one of their pre-fab options. Most of the first Little Free Libraries were made from repurposed materials, and creative recycling and DIY craftsmanship are still embraced.

“Some people like it to look like a little replica of their house. Some people repurpose newspaper boxes, that you pull down,” Huson says. “It really is a new folk art.”

For professional artists, Little Free Libraries can become a new kind of canvas.

That was true for Alicia Rheal, a painter in Madison, Wisconsin who has customized several libraries. Rheal’s professional work has included painting houses, theater sets, faux finishes, and commissioned portraits of both pets and people. She painted her first Little Free Library after meeting Rick Brooks, the organization’s co-founder.

“I had seen these libraries around town and thought they were absolutely brilliant,” Rheal says.

She was commissioned to paint an animal-themed Little Free Library for a collaboration between two pet food stores. When that project fell through, Brooks started showing the library she had completed at outreach events.

Another of Rheal’s Little Free Library projects refers directly to books and literacy. Teaching at a summer art camp, she had her kids plan and paint their own library. They chose an outer-space theme in which each planet represented a different literary genre.

“We had the mystery planet with a dagger and a big question mark, and we had the historical planet with the pyramids on it, and we had the romance planet that had people in an embrace, and the picture-book planet,” Rheal says. “And a little spaceship flying around, the bookmobile spaceship, with books as the exhaust flying out of it.” The kids’ library went on to find a home at AARP in Washington, D.C.

Rheal, who stewards a Little Free Library at her own home, says that painting Little Free Libraries isn’t significantly different from her usual work. The libraries allow her to apply that work to a cause she’s eager to promote.

For Patricia Arroyo, who lives and makes art in New Jersey, her Little Free Library provided a chance to create a public art piece connecting her work with themes recognizable to her community.

Arroyo’s paintings return again and again to icons of her childhood: Palace Amusements, an indoor park and arcade in Asbury Park, New Jersey; the Palace’s carousel house; and the grinning figure of Tillie, a painted funhouse face that appeared in two murals on the Palace building.

Arroyo was invited by the Arts Coalition of Asbury Park (ArtsCAP), of which she had been a member, to customize a Little Free Library for the Asbury Park train station. She painted it with scenes of the Palace Amusements building, including a funhouse tunnel ride on the inside of the library, and the Tillie face — images that are historically resonant not only to Arroyo as an artist, but to many of the town’s residents as well.

Palace Amusements opened in 1888, closed in 1988, and was demolished in 2004, despite local groups fighting to save it. Arroyo remembers the 1960s and ’70s as the building’s and Asbury Park’s heyday, with “rock’n’roll leather jackets, muscle cars, driving around the strip, and the Palace Amusements.”

For Arroyo herself, “[Palace Amusements] had very fond memories, because my whole life growing up, I used to go there all the time,” she says. “I went there with my dad, and we went on the rides and did all the games. It was always a blast.”

Now, Arroyo describes her paintings of the Palace building and Tillie — including her Little Free Library — as a way to keep the memories and the funhouse-sideshow aesthetic alive.

“I started painting it and it caught on. People loved the work,” she says. “The best part about me selling work on the street or at shows are the stories I share with people. Thousands of people tell stories about going there, whether they went just once or all the time.”

Much of this work lamenting the building’s destruction refers to the fact that the Palace Amusements’ attractions included many handmade elements, including the funhouse sets and animated characters. “All of the props were made from papier-mâché and by local artists, and that’s one thing I really loved,” Arroyo says.

“Art is getting lost, little by little, because of the digital age. It really is getting lost,” she says. “I’m just trying to point that out in the new work.”

But contemporary folk art — public, often handmade — is growing where Little Free Libraries are installed. The Little Free Library Book, a history and collection of stories published in April 2015, touts the libraries as a channel for creativity. Photos on the book’s cover and inside show Little Free Libraries built and painted to look like a Volkswagen Bus and a TARDIS from “Doctor Who,” and like historical and cultural buildings familiar to the locals where they’re built.

“It’s not really about Todd Bol or his organization, but about the stewards,” Margret Aldrich, the book’s author, said at its release party in March. “The stewards are the ones who have propelled this to be an international grassroots movement.”

And as artists like Arroyo worry about relentless digital progress, Little Free Libraries could strike an analog blow not only for literacy and face-to-face neighborliness, but for art, too. 50,000 libraries by 2017 means 50,000 participatory public art pieces near homes, schools, and street corners around the world. Not bad for an organization that’s still just half a decade past that first, deceptively quaint sign advertising “Free Books.”