Consider the Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries aren’t exactly new to me, nor to Colorado.  Most days I’ll walk by one in my neighborhood.  The one at the History Colorado Center comes to mind.  I even photographed one when Kelly and I visited last July for our anniversary.  Look:

i have no idea where this is.

That trip, incidentally, was the trip where we decided we were going to move to Denver.

It isn’t difficult to find a Little Free Library.  But most people aren’t going to’s map of registered Little Free Libraries to find them.  More often than not, your first encounter with a Little Free Library is going to be by chance – while you’re empty-handed, or anyway bookless (or anyway without a book you’re ready to trade away just now).  So if you want to use that LFL, you either have to acknowledge its location and plan to return with books to exchange at a later time, or you take something now and leave nothing in its place.

For this reason, it’s important that the LFL be located somewhere that is well-peopled – so that there are enough people that acknowledge it and return with materials to donate to even out the people that take something and leave nothing.  This, unfortunately, does not appear to be happening (at least with the LFLs I have personally encountered).

When I last checked History Colorado’s Little Free Library, it had one copy of a recent (!) New Yorker and one book that nobody is ever, ever going to read.  If anyone was ever going to read it, it would have already been taken by someone (say, a transient).  What I’m saying is, it was empty.  Sorry, History Colorado.  There is no incentive to regularly visit this LFL (unless you enjoy passively giving books away to transients).

Now, there’s no reason to condemn or criticize any Little Free Library.  It’s encouraging and inspiring to see anyone want to reach out to their community in the name of sharing and literacy, whether it is a suburban family who places one in their front yard or the Byers-Evans House (another History Colorado site), whose LFL is inaccessible when the museum is closed.  LFLs are nothing if not well-intentioned.  And maybe the LFLs in suburban neighborhoods are thriving.  But those are insular, used only by that neighborhood’s residents, if at all.  They are not well-peopled by anyone outside of that neighborhood.  The form is, well, everywhere, but the function (again, of the ones I have personally come across) leaves something to be desired.

I believe that we (we!) can optimize the utility and cultural impact of Little Free Libraries if we (we!) do two things.  First, we construct LFLs at the best locations.  Second, we fill (and build) them with materials with which people actually want to engage.

So, then, where are the best locations?  As mentioned above, well-peopled spaces are key.  Community gathering spaces.  I have a bit of experience in finding these types of spaces and establishing a library presence at them.  What I’d like to see done here is very much in the spirit of what we accomplished as The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library – collaborating with local businesses, event organizers, and cultural institutions to take libraries out into the community.  But instead of a pop-up library inside of a 22′ truck, there’d be a series of permanent (albeit smaller) libraries located at well-peopled spaces throughout the community.

Two places immediately sprung to mind when I first began thinking on this: The Source and The Big Wonderful.  Little Free Libraries would work beautifully at both.  The Source is an indoor marketplace open daily; The Big Wonderful is a weekly (seasonal) outdoor market.  Both are local- and artisan-focused.  Both are planned destinations for thousands of people every week.  Both encourage you to look around and stay awhile.  Both encourage you to make repeated return trips.

These are the types of spaces at which Little Free Libraries should be built.  Natural community gathering spaces.  Event destinations.  At farmers markets like the ones on Old South Pearl Street and Highlands Square.  Other co-working and The Source-like spaces such as Industry, Avanti, and Taxi.  The Big Wonderful’s sister site that houses the Denargo Farm & Truck food park and the Friday Night Bazaar.  Public spaces like Cheesman Park or the Civic Center Cultural Complex.  This, obviously, is not an exhaustive list, nor should it be (and what do you want from me, I’ve only lived here for ten weeks), but you get the idea.

I do realize that The Denver Public Library is located within the Civic Center Cultural Complex (the 4C), but events like Civic Center Eats and the People’s Fair aren’t necessarily stimulating library attendance, and DPL isn’t really doing much in terms of outreach to get people at the 4C to go inside the library.  They did have their DPL Connect book trike set up at the Earth Day fair, but all they were doing was giving away withdrawn books.  I remember this well because, after taking Richard Ford’s Canada off their hands, I stood in front of their stand while I gawked at a shirtless dude (re: transient) dancing with middle fingers raised to New Radicals’ You Get What You Give in front of some radio station’s tent.  But if all you’re doing is giving away books for free, you don’t really need to put all those resources and personnel towards doing so.

In an ideal world, this Little Free Library project would be in collaboration with Denver Public Library.  LFLs would be a great place for DPL to redistribute their withdrawn books, and DPL would be a reliable resource for making sure LFLs are filled (perhaps with some library card applications and brochures alongside the books).

And with which types of materials are people more likely to engage?  That’s harder to gauge.  Ranganathan’s second and third laws of library science come in handy here: every reader his or her book, and every book its reader, respectively.  Every person who comes upon a Little Free Library should find something of interest, and every item in the LFL should be of interest to someone.  This means the LFL’s collection should be diverse, and that if you are donating materials to it, you should be proud of what you’re putting in there (i.e. you’ve either personally enjoyed it or you could see someone enjoying it).

I do think the Little Free Library “Take a Book, Return a Book” motto and Ranganathan’s laws of library science oversimplify what it means to be a library.  They are both too book-centric.  As The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library, we touted ourselves as “purveyors of information and culture, of literacy and entertainment.”  And really, that applies to all libraries.  But information, culture, literacy, and entertainment are not limited to books.  If a LFL truly wishes to have something for everyone – to truly represent a library – then its collection should be expanded to include other sources of information, culture, literacy, and entertainment – CDs, DVDs, audiobooks, zines, magazines, small instruments, crafts, seeds, tools, works of art, etc.

I also mentioned parenthetically that LFLs should be constructed with engaging materials.  There is no stagnant image of what a Little Free Library looks like, or should look like.


This LFL at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral School in Downtown Manhattan created by the architectural firm Stereotank is pretty much flawlessly designed.  There is space to comfortably spend time inside of the library, as well as peepholes all around it so you can browse the collection from the outside to see if going inside is worth your time.  This inside-out type of design is extremely engaging and interactive, and is really the kind of Little Free Library I’d like to see built in these (particularly outdoor) spaces.

For instance, every time I walk past the empty red telephone box outside of Pint’s Pub, I think about how awesome it would be if it were transformed into a library.  And who knows.  Maybe we can make that happen.  I’m sure there are plenty of other spaces around town that are readymade for a rogue library – old newspaper boxes, for instance.  Or whatever this used to be:

I’d also like to approach this, at least in part, as a public art project, where a Little Free Library’s form is the main, or at least a complementary, draw.  This mean’s collaborating with Denver’s makers – street artists, painters, sculptors, woodworkers, welders, architects, other DIY folk – to put the aesthetic of the construction itself into focus.  Again, there is no good description of what these installations would look like, but this robolibrary is a pretty good example:

Another natural community partner with this project would be the Denver Tool Library, “a place where community members can share their resources, whether that means tools, time, space, skills, or ideas, so that everyone becomes more inspired, productive, and empowered.”  Sounds like a place to get stuff done, and where a project like this would be celebrated.

Obviously, this is just a thought experiment.  The last time I had this type of thought experiment, it slowly evolved into something big.  But it took time, and it required cooperation and support from my community.  An undertaking like this cannot be carried out by one person, but rather asks that local businesses, local artists, and local libraries work in concert with one another in the name of community and literacy.  It would require a big, collective effort.  But now that I’ve meditated on it for 1,600 words, I think I’m ready to get to work.

How about you?


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