Promoting Community, One Book At A Time

Sep 21, 2016

The idea for Little Free Libraries started in 2009 in Hudson, Wis. That’s when Todd Bol built a small model of a one-room schoolhouse, set it on a post, and filled with it free books as a tribute to his mother’s love of reading.  

This Little Free Library offers reading material and a nod to a group of dog lovers.
Credit Guy Stephens/WNIJ

The appeal of the take-a-book, leave-a-book exchanges spread throughout the world.  This year, they came to Princeton, Illinois, in a big way.  

Julie Wayland is director of the Princeton Public Library. Margaret Martinkus is curator and reference librarian and coordinates the Library’s art activities. The library has done community art shows and other projects that involve members of the public, and Wayland and Martinkus were looking for another project the library could do. Then a resident suggested putting up Little Free Libraries.

Wayland and Martinkus liked the idea, but pre-built libraries and kits can run into the hundreds of dollars. A few were donated by businesses and foundations, but the library wanted to really expand the project. The library invited community groups to decorate a number of libraries, then held an auction, hoping to defray their costs. Martinkus says they wanted to offer the community lots of levels of involvement.  

“So a person could start from scratch, build it up, paint it, decorate it, waterproof it -- the whole thing, or they could just take one of these pre-assembled kits, and then personalize it,” she says, "or if it was an organization like Friends of the Library, they could just fund one, or they could be a steward, and just put the books in it."

Wayland says local artists as well as regular townspeople have stepped up for the project with a wide variety of libraries – and for a variety of reasons. Wayland cites one couple who put one decorated with dogs up in their neighborhood.

“They had a group of friends,” she says. "They’d all walk their dogs together, so it kind of commemorated that association."   

Wayland says she herself created a library next to the Library’s pollinator garden in memory of a friend who passed away.

Businesses got involved, too. Kim Frey, director of the Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce, says it was an easy decision to jump on board and support something that builds community spirit.

“We did take the opportunity to create one ourselves, and we did a Shop Local theme, right in front of our office,”she says. "The theme behind give one, take one, I think that says a lot about character, about your town, and we’re just thrilled that the program has taken off like it has."

Frey says other businesses are funding the libraries and putting them up at or in their establishments, too. That’s along with parks, schools, residential streets and even the train station, not to mention ones that have popped up in small towns around Princeton.

Wayland says a lot of people ask why they did the project. Don’t they see them as competition? She says no.

“We don’t see it like that,” she says, "because we are open a lot of hours, but we can’t be open all the time and we can’t be where you are when you want to read" -- like waiting for an appointment or sitting in the park.

And, for Wayland and Martinkus, a desire to read – wherever and whenever that might be – is something to be encouraged. If the libraries also encourage community spirit, so much the better.

All of this couldn’t make Rick Brooks, the resident who suggested the project in the first place, happier.  In fact, Brooks -- along with Todd Bol, the builder of the very first book exchange -- cofounded the Little Free Libraries movement. They aimed it initially as way to build community in small towns that didn’t have their own library.  Now retired and living in Princeton, Brooks says he’s amazed at how the Little Free Libraries have caught on everywhere.

“There are between 42,000 and 44,000 of them registered throughout the world,” he says, "and my estimate, based on installing and travelling and visiting, is that there are two to three times that many."

But Brooks says he’s not surprised at the success Little Free Libraries have had in this Bureau County town.

“The story here in Princeton is a classic example of how it works," he says. "It’s not only promoting reading and literacy. It’s promoting neighborliness and friendliness, and generosity and sharing, and the fact that people like doing things for other people."

He thinks a lot of people, in a lot of communities, want that. And many seem to agree.  

So if you head to Princeton to look at their Little Free Libraries, or anywhere else, look around as you go.  You’ll probably find Little Free Libraries along the way.  Chances are there are some near you, down the road or just around the corner.