Margret Aldrich, Media and Program Manager with Little Free Library and author of The Little Free Library Book, speaks with us about book sharing, community building, and why open access isn’t just about the Internet anymore.
(Archivoz) Can you tell us a little of the history behind Little Free Library?
The very first Little Free Library was built by a man named Todd Bol in Hudson, Wisconsin in 2009. Todd built his library as a memorial to his mother, who was a schoolteacher and loved to read. He built this little box for books and constructed it to look like a one-room schoolhouse and put it in his front yard. As he started to see how his neighbors reacted to it—they shared books, they stopped and had conversations with each other—he really wanted to share with the rest of the world the idea that books can bring people together. The Little Free Library nonprofit organization was created in 2012, and now in 2019 we’re celebrating a decade of sharing books. There are more than 90,000 registered Little Free Libraries, in all 50 states in the U.S. and 91 different countries.
(Archivoz) How did you become involved with the Little Free Library movement?
I’ve always been a book person. I worked in publishing for about 10 years as an editor and then I shifted to magazine publishing. I wrote about Little Free Libraries when I first became aware of them back in 2011 and subsequently ended up writing a book about the global movement. Afterwards, the nonprofit organization asked me to join the team. I do media relations. We get a surprising amount of media attention around the world. I work with our partners, like the Children’s Book Council and the New York Times Learning Network. We’ve even done projects with Disney and Sony. I also run a program called the Action Book Club, which combines reading with community service.
(Archivoz) What are your thoughts on calling it a movement? What, in your mind, is the ultimate goal of Little Free Libraries as a movement?
Ultimately, our goal is to increase book access and build community. I do consider it a movement, for a couple of reasons. It’s really people-driven. Every single person who has a Little Free Library is called a Steward and we consider them volunteers for the Little Free Library movement because they’re giving their own time to better their communities. There is something universal about this phenomenon, from New York to Iowa farmland to Pakistan or Australia and Japan: the love of books, the love of reading and the desire to share books with others, and a real need to connect with people and give back to one’s community.
(Archivoz) From my explorations here in Corvallis, it appears that not every little library is a Little Free Library. How does it feel to have so many imitators out there?
When we count our 90,000, those are only the registered libraries. We know that there are many, many more that aren’t registered, and we’re okay with that. We’re all doing the same good thing: everybody’s trying to create greater access, share books with others, and do something good for their communities. We do love it when people register with us, though, and we would implore you to do so because we want to count you, we want you to be part of this global community, we want you to add your Little Library to our world map so that people can find you. We also do a lot with steward services: we help people out when they’re getting started or when they want to learn more about how to engage their community, and we do lots of fun things like book giveaways and author interviews.
(Archivoz) What is the most creative Little Library you’ve come across?
One that I saw this year that was amazing was in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. A woman named Sharalee Armitage Howard had this huge cottonwood tree in her front yard, 110 years old. It was dying, and the city said it had to come down. She ended up leaving a very tall stump, and inside she created a walk-in Little Free Library. It has interior and exterior lighting; it has bookshelves inside. It’s really pretty magical.
(Archivoz) You mention in your book that some people have done more with their Little Libraries than just share books—e.g., seed exchanges, geocaching. Do you have a favorite “extracurricular” use?
It’s interesting to see how a Little Free Library can reflect the personality of a neighborhood or of its steward. I do love when people do seed exchanges in the springtime; it’s an excellent community service. There’s one man who uses his Little Free Library as a record exchange. Instead of books, he shares albums. In one neighborhood it may be about connecting with your neighbors and building community, and in another neighborhood, if there are no libraries or bookstores nearby, it really becomes about public access to books.
(Archivoz) You have written about the movement’s anti-tech appeal. A post on the nonprofit’s Linked In site refers to encountering a Little Free Library as an “analog moment.” Why is this important?
You almost can’t get more analog than a Little Free Library. It is literally a wooden box filled with books: you open the door, look inside, find something you like and take it home with you. In a time when Amazon tells us what we’d like to read and Netflix tells us what we’d like to watch, I think people respond to that very slowed-down, tactile experience. However, as analog as a Little Free Library is, the movement itself has been very driven by technology. We never would have spread to South Korea or Sudan or Iceland without social media. It’s been phenomenal to see how people sharing photos of their Little Free Libraries has helped create the movement. We have a private Facebook page for registered stewards where they can connect with other stewards across the country and around the world. So, you can connect with your community and your neighbors with the Little Free Library itself, but you can also connect to the wider, global Little Free Library community with technology.
(Archivoz) “Open access” is a bit of a catchphrase right now in the library and archives profession, but it tends to be used in reference mainly to academic publishing. At a time when many public library systems face political and budgetary crises, amidst debates about the benefits of late fees, charging for library privileges, etc., in what ways does the Little Free Library speak to the issue?
As a nonprofit organization, we see ourselves as an ally to public libraries. We work with hundreds of public library systems, and often they will use Little Free Libraries as community outreach tools. I know of a library in Florida that puts Little Free Libraries at the beach, and they include information about their programs inside. Also, if you lack the resources to start your Little Free Library, we have the Impact Library Program. It’s a donor-driven program; we supply Little Free Libraries to applicants at no cost. We consider the Little Free Library movement to be very inclusive and we don’t want there to be barriers for anybody who wants to be involved.
(Archivoz) How does one go about becoming a Little Free Library steward?
You can go to Little Free Library.org and find out how to get started there. You can either build a Little Free Library of your own if you have the skills and the ideas, or you can come to our site and get one that’s already constructed. If you purchase one, it’s already registered; you just have to add it to the map once it’s up. If you build your own, we would love for you to register with us and we’ll send you the charter sign to put on your library. We try to keep it as rule-free as possible, so that it’s not only meaningful, but a very fun thing to do as well.
Header Image: Little Free Library, Corvallis, Oregon (photo by editor)
Additional images: 1) Little Free Library, Stavelot, Belgium (used by permission of Llarina González Solar); 2) Little Free Library, Soave, Italy (used by permission of Llarina González Solar); 3) Little Free Library, Corvallis, Oregon (photo by editor); 4) Little Free Library, Corvallis, Oregon (photo by editor)