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:

IMG_0327
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 littlefreelibrary.org’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.

see?

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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take the world apart, figure out how it works (a modest proposal)

I am what one might call, if they liked the word as much as I do, a worrywart.

One of my favorite things to worry about of late – in between worrying when I’m going to get a job, or even an interview for a job, that is better than the one that I’ve had the last two years, and whether there is something seriously wrong with my digestive system (due to a deficiency of iron, or vitamin, or calcium, or potassium, or fiber, or genetics), and whether maybe I should just become a math teacher, and whether I have offended anyone, anywhere, in any situation, in my entire life – has been whether we Americans (disambiguation:  U.S.) are ever going to pull ourselves out of this god-forsaken recession, and, subsequently, what is going to happen to us if and when we don’t, and that Sarah Palin really has a chance of becoming president in two years, and that I won’t like living in Canada, either, because snow.

It makes sense to me why we’ll never get out of this recession.  In the post-war boom, we created a monster.  Today, we call it “consumer culture”.  We were so happy to be in peacetime and have money to spend that nobody stopped to worry about what would happen when we ran out of money to spend again.

And we made babies.  Lots of ‘em.  Cause why not?

Ten years into the boom, the government taught us to be afraid of the Communists, and we responded by becoming even bigger Capitalist pigs just to show those Commies who was boss, that we could have as large of properties as we wanted, wherever we damn well pleased, and that it was ours, all ours.

Shopping malls and chain stores sprung up, and we filled them with people who needed jobs, and they sold us crap we didn’t need.  And we built neighborhoods around these shopping malls and chain stores, and we surrounded ourselves with their crap, and we called it culture.

And we were scared, and we were sad, and we were bored, but we were happy.

I was born into one of those neighborhoods.  I only go back for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I used to have so many friends there.

People are born into these types of neighborhoods all of the time.  So are their future friends and spouses, and all kinds of people who will be content to live there for the rest of their lives, because they were popular in high school or whatever, and because Applebee’s isn’t that bad, and because Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t that bad.  Here, as elsewhere, sixty-something years later, the consumer culture lives on.

The problem this country has, being what it is, and trying to recover from the state it is in, is that we have to spend our way out of the recession.  To paraphrase a proverb, money makes the United States of America go round.

At the individual level, it makes perfect sense, in an economic crunch, to become more frugal with your earnings, and to surround yourself with less crap.  Personally, I support this mode of living, no matter the income, no matter the economy. Maybe that’s because crap doesn’t make me happy (see also:  paragraph two).

The problem is, as a consumer culture increasingly practices frugality, the number of employees needed to sell us crap, and the number of stores needed to sell us crap, and the number of malls needed to sell us crap, becomes fewer. Enough people need to continue buying crap so that the people who are selling us crap can keep their jobs.

Crap.

Recently, my library’s Friends group implemented a full-time used bookstore into the library, comprising of books that had been donated to the library, but were not in good enough shape to be incorporated into circulation.  It is an experiment in fundraising with which I have very few arguments.  But here they are:

These books are sold completely on the honor system.  Presumably, patrons abide by a sign sitting atop a shelf that tells them each book type’s price, and they put the correct amount of money into a coin box sitting on a different shelf, and they go on their merry ways, and we don’t ask any questions.  The store sits in a blind spot of an alcove, immediately behind the circulation desk.

My doubt of uniform bookstore patron honesty notwithstanding (which isn’t too far removed from my doubt of uniformlibrary patron honesty), I think it is a good idea, and that it will prove successful in the long run.  It’s a good way to utilize donations.  Prior to the bookstore, the donated books that did not make it into circulation were sorted, boxed up, and put into storage, and weren’t thought about again until the semiannual book sale.  While the book sales were, and are, a hit, they were still only semiannual.  A perpetual book sale means a perpetual, albeit modest, source of funds being raised solely towards the well being of the library.  If this hurts the semiannual book sales, it will be but marginally, and the difference should be more than made up for by the funds from the perpetual sale.

So, how does this get us out of the recession?  It doesn’t.  Despite the notion that libraries may very well be the new cupcake, and despite my own personal awareness, as an aspiring librarian, of both the shifting dynamic and immense staying power of libraries, there will always be folks who question their importance, who think city governments are just wasting their tax dollars.  And anyway, an increased dependency on libraries amid an economic crisis causes the same dilemma as before:  the more people utilize the resources of a library – which, by the way, is often chock-full of music and movies, new releases and classics – the fewer people we will need to sell us those resources at retail price.

So how do we practice frugality without further hurting a hurt economy?  I would like to propose the following:  Instead of bringing consumer culture to libraries, what if we brought libraries to consumer culture?

Take, for instance, a store like, oh I don’t know, Barnes & Noble.  What if Barnes & Noble, while still primarily, and even overwhelmingly, a bookstore, introduced a member-based rental system and, subsequently, a used bookstore within that bookstore?

Barnes & Noble already offers a membership service, where people who become members are offered incentives for using a Barnes & Noble-exclusive credit card.  What if material rental was one of those incentives?  What if that credit card doubled as a library card?

Think about it.  Its implementation wouldn’t be all that difficult.

To begin, you would have a bookstore, like Barnes & Noble, filled with nothing but new books.  You put up some signs, send out some emails, set up some Facebook events, get folks to fill out some sort of application, yadda yadda yadda, you have members who begin to have the option of using the facility as a library.

By having a two-in-one library/credit card, there is a guarantee that the material will either be paid for or returned.  If an item that’s been rented out hasn’t been returned in an acceptable condition after the allotted amount of rental time, a late fee could begin to accumulate until it is returned, again, in an acceptable condition, wherein that fee would be charged to the credit card, and billed at the end of the month.  Once the item is a certain number of days late, the patron could automatically be charged for the retail price of the material on the credit card, and billed at the end of the month.  (Why don’t libraries do this?  Do libraries do this?)

Assuming at least some members utilize the rental privilege appropriately, there will be items coming back that are used. Slap a used price tag on those babies and return them to the collection, where they too can either be rented or bought. Hey, presto, you’ve got yourself a bookstore/library on your hands.

Some folks may prefer to rent used items because there would be less money at stake should they decide to keep them.  Incidentally, a used bookstore like Half-Price Books could easily introduce a similar service, and it would be awesome.  But Half-Price Books isn’t the problem.  They get it.  It’s the folks who insist on selling us shiny new things that are the problem.

I’m no computer scientist or anything, but it seems like an automation system that can differentiate rentals from purchases isn’t that tough of a program to write.  Anyone remember Blockbuster Video?

I’ll leave it to the store to write this, as well as to decide how many items a member may rent at a time, how long and which items are allowed to be rented, whether there is a rental fee, and how much the per item daily late fee will be.  But may my made up answers for my imaginary bookstore/library (called Barnes & Noble & Grawlsy) serve as suggestions: four; everything uniformly checks out for seventeen days; no; eighty-four cents.  Why not?

Obviously, a number of hoops would need to be jumped through to get there – namely, convincing a successful pan-American conglomerate to reconstruct their business plan for no particular reason other than that it might help save the American economy in the long run.  And I can see why publishing companies may want to protest.  But I think it’s a possibility, and that it isn’t unreasonable to believe that it may even help both sides net even more of a profit.

By putting materials in members’ homes before actually having to buy them, it offers choice, and in turn what one may call, if they liked the phrase as much as I do, the illusion of frugality.  At the same time, it offers a greater range of people an incentive to become members, and a greater rationale for returning, and with greater frequency.

This type of rental system, that uses the library (and the used bookstore within the library) as a prototype, and that introduces thrift and frugality into mainstream consumer culture, could hypothetically be implemented into all kinds of retail stores.  The line from library to bookstore was simply the easiest line to draw.

It’s too bad ideas don’t pay the rent, because I think this one is worth well over five hundred and eighty American dollars. So I’ll sit around in the dark, with the thermostat hovering around eighty, because, really, who needs to wear clothes in their own apartment, and worry about how this is received on the Internet, which will inevitably be, “Hardly at all,” and whether this was even a decent idea in the first place, and why I wasted so much time thinking about it when I could have been applying for jobs that I won’t get, and whether maybe I should just become a math teacher.

Cheers.

(Epilogue:)

The day after I had initially finished writing this essay, I found this article about the fall and subsequent sale of Barnes & Noble, glaring at me from the Yahoo! homepage.  On numerous occasions in the last couple of weeks – and partially due, I’m sure, to the sizeable amount of LOST re-watching that has occurred in my private life of late – I have considered that Eko/Lockean debate over whether I am mistaking coincidence for fate, or whether I am mistaking fate for coincidence. Either way, I’ve decided that this is about as much effort as I am going to put into it.  I’ve got better stuff to do than save Barnes & Noble.

(NOTE:  originally published 1st September 2010 for Indoor Sunglasses.)