Little and free, libraries are bringing neighborhoods together

Benchmark achievement to be reached Friday at Mall of America

BY MIKE HANKS

For many, a visit to the neighborhood library is an act of faith.

Neighborhood libraries have sprouted up across the Twin Cities, and you don’t need a library card to check out the material, although you aren’t likely to find exactly what you’re looking for.

The Little Free Library program is a modern day twist on the old-fashioned book swap. In a world where books can be downloaded to handheld devices, some people are putting their faith in others to help them discover their next great literary adventure.

A Little Free Library in Hopkins stands at the corner of 13th Avenue North and Fourth Street North. Built by Dick Seelye, the library was established last fall. (Photo by Mike Hanks – Sun Newspapers)

A Little Free Library in Hopkins stands at the corner of 13th Avenue North and Fourth Street North. Built by Dick Seelye, the library was established last fall. (Photo by Mike Hanks – Sun Newspapers)

The neighborhood libraries are built and erected by those who want to share their love of reading. The libraries are not much bigger than a breadbox, and they can be found along residential streets across the country, stocked with a small variety of books. Looking for something new to read? Have an old paperback that you’re not going to read again? Visit a local Little Free Library to swap a dime store mystery novel for a biography or a literary classic.

The simple concept was born in Hudson, Wis., according to Melissa Eystad, the director of organizational development for the nonprofit organization that is being formed to guide the growth of the program.

Today there are nearly 2,500 libraries around the world, and an afternoon dedicated to the program is planned Friday at Mall of America in Bloomington to help spread the word, figuratively and literally.

 

A humble beginning

The program started about three years ago when Hudson resident Todd Bol created the first Little Free Library. He built his small box and installed it upon a post outside his house, near a bridge leading to North Hudson, in honor of his mother, a former schoolteacher, according to Eystad.

Providing a place for neighborhood residents to swap books delighted Bol’s neighbors and inspired others to do the same, Eystad explained. With the help of Bol’s friend Rick Brooks, an outreach program manager in continuing studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, the idea began to spread. “They really took off in Madison, initially,” Eystad said.

The libraries are typically simple boxes, often made with recycled materials. The organization sells libraries, but most people prefer to create their own, some using plans provided through the Little Free Library website. About 80 percent of libraries have been built by their owners, Eystad noted.

Many of the libraries are built with repurposed materials, and the organization will send library owners an official sign designating their branch as a part of the Little Free Library program. The signs, which include an individual library identification number, are made from 100-year-old Amish barn wood, according to Eystad.

Some libraries are simple in design and appearance, others bear funky colors or original artwork. Many have a Plexiglas window in the door, and a few are nothing more than repurposed objects, such as an old metal newspaper box and a microwave oven.

Other than the Plexiglas window, Dick Seelye of Hopkins made his library using scrap materials in his garage. Seelye learned about the program last summer and created a library for his neighborhood. The library, installed last Halloween, stands at the corner of 13th Avenue North and Fourth Street North in Hopkins, adorned with solar-powered Christmas lights.

“We see a good deal of activity,” he said.

The program relies upon stewards – often the person who built and installed the library – to serve as the caretaker of it. As a steward of his neighborhood library, Seelye checks on the books inside the library periodically. “They turn over on a very regular basis,” he said.

“What’s fun about these, you can build them yourself,” he noted. “There’s no set design.”

Besides the corner library Seelye built for his Hopkins neighborhood, he has built another library from cranberry crates he received from Bol, and gave it to the organization to use in spreading its mission.

 

Benchmark

Mall of America created 20 libraries that will be on display Friday, and eventually find homes in or near the mall. The mall’s 20 libraries will bring the program’s total to more than 2,500, exceeding the number of public libraries funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie more than a century ago. The benchmark was a goal of the organization when the program took off, and that goal will be reached “several years ahead of when we thought we would,” Eystad said.

Two of the libraries will remain inside the mall, while the rest will be set up outside the mall, some through Twin Cities nonprofit organizations.

Although most of the libraries are installed in neighborhoods, the creativity behind them isn’t limited to their design, according to Eystad. A library in Canada is accessible only by boat, while another is on a bridge in Germany, she noted.

The libraries may be popping up across the planet, but their impact is typically local. The libraries unite neighbors that might otherwise never stop to talk to each other, according to Eystad.

Seelye may be a steward for his Hopkins library, but other neighbors help watch over it, he noted, calling his nine-month-old library “a real nice addition to the neighborhood” that has fostered “a real nice community effort.”

A map detailing locations of many of the libraries is available through the program’s website.

 

If You Go

What: Reading and Healthy Neighborhoods Day

Where: Mall of America, Bloomington

When: Noon to 3 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17 (celebrity book readings are 1-2 p.m.)

Info: xr.com/mall and littlefreelibrary.org

up arrow