September 30, 2012

Tiny Libraries Connect Neighborhoods, One Book at a Time

Artist Corado Vittoria shows off the little free library he designed, which now stands in Aesop’s Park in Tavares, Fla.

When Todd Bol installed a handcrafted box in his front yard and filled it with giveaway books as a tribute to his late mother, he didn’t realize the neighborly gesture would ignite a global movement.

That first “Little Free Library,” a miniature schoolhouse inviting passersby to take or donate a book, was such a hit with Mr. Bol’s neighbors in Hudson, Wis., that some offered to put similar boxes in their own yards. So over the past three years he built more tiny libraries and teamed with Rick Brooks, a fellow nonprofit veteran, to offer them in more towns.

“People will come up and hug the libraries when we install them,” says Mr. Bol.

Since 2009, more than 2,500 boxes with “Little Free Library” signs have sprouted up in more than 40 states and countries, including Germany, Ghana, and India. Word of mouth, social media, and news coverage have fueled the expansion.

“We started with no start-up capital, no office, no staff, and here we are,” says Mr. Brooks. “I’ve been doing community-development work for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

The charity’s founders haven’t raised enough revenue to draw salaries yet; their organization garnered only a little more than $70,000 last year. Most of that money came from sales of custom-made library boxes (up to $600 each) and $60 signs. People also pay $25 to register their book exchanges and list their locations on the Little Free Library Web site. Mr. Bol, who builds the library boxes and signs, ships them to about 100 people each week.

Volunteers also build their own libraries. In New Orleans, they crafted 10 boxes using debris from Hurricane Katrina. Inmates of a Wisconsin prison have built 34 libraries through a program that promotes literacy and carpentry skills.

The libraries rarely run out of books because so many people donate, says Michele Erikson, executive director of Wisconsin Literacy, a supporter of Little Free Library.

The nonprofit’s popularity shows that in the electronic-media era, people still crave hands-on community involvement, says Mr. Brooks, who works as a health-communications and social-marketing instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“People support that which they help create,” he says. “Having a meaningful role, and being engaged in making something good happen, is very different from just sending a check in the mail.”

In addition to the revenue it gets from the registration and sale of its book boxes, Little Free Library finances its work with gifts from individuals and grants from community groups. The charity is also seeking support from foundations so it can meet the burgeoning demand and expand its mission to promote community service.

“It would be nice to have salaries,” Mr. Brooks says, “but we want to be systematic and thoughtful about the way we grow.”