Repurposing Little Free Libraries during COVID

Monday, October 19, 2020 - 4:50pm

The concept is simple: Take a book, leave a book in return.

The concept is simple: Take a book, leave a book in return. Buy this photo
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Reading has always been a solitary activity for me. When I checked out books at the public library as a child, I knew that those books were mine alone for the next two weeks. I read for hours while curled up on the couch, oblivious to everything except the words on the page. When my mother called me for dinner, I scrambled to reach a good stopping point in my book before joining my family. 

As a child, I’d never thought of books as a way to build friendships or community. But Little Free Libraries is looking to change that.

Little Free Libraries is a nonprofit committed to inspiring a love for books and community. The movement focuses on filling book deserts — areas with few accessible public libraries — with small book-sharing boxes, known as Little Libraries. The concept is simple: Take a book, leave a book in return. Since its creation in 2009, the Little Free Library movement has built over 100,000 libraries around the world to promote literacy and reading. 

“As a young girl, going to the library and checking out books really changed my life and made me a lifelong reader,” said Kim Kozlowski, founder of Detroit Little Libraries and reporter for the Detroit News, in an interview with The Michigan Daily. Detroit Little Libraries started in 2014 as a grassroots campaign with the goal of making Detroit the “Little Free Library capitol of the world.” Detroit Little Libraries operates separately from the Little Free Libraries nonprofit, but the two organizations have a strong tradition of collaboration. Since its founding, Detroit Little Libraries has raised funds to build hundreds of Little Libraries throughout the city, including 97 placed in front of Detroit Public Schools. 

After installing her first Little Free Library in front of her home, Kozlowski was thrilled at the sense of community it brought to her neighborhood. She hoped to bring that same momentum to Detroit, a city climbing out of bankruptcy at the time. “Books promote your imagination, increase your vocabulary and your critical thinking skills. It can ultimately change the trajectory of your life,” Kozlowski said. 

Kozlowski was aware of the stereotypes that surrounded Detroit and hoped to flip this image by promoting literacy. “I had hope that if even one book could change the course of a child’s life in the city, then it was worth all the work we were doing,” Kozlowski said. Many of the libraries are made from reclaimed wood from abandoned Detroit homes, courtesy of End Grain Woodworking Co. Detroit Little Libraries also worked to include books by diverse authors in their libraries. “We wanted to make sure there were books in the library that reflected the community and the diverse tapestry that Detroit is,” Kozlowski said.

Most of the impacts of Little Free Libraries have been anecdotal — only a few critical studies have been published. Little Free Libraries often become community gathering areas, bringing the neighborhood closer together through a shared love of books. “We started talking about not only the books we were reading, but also our lives,” Kozlowski said of a patron to her first Little Library. With this community impact in mind, Kozlowski worked with neighborhood groups and local artists to install, maintain and paint many of Detroit’s Little Libraries.

One of Kozwalski’s greatest challenges was ensuring that her libraries ended up in neighborhoods that could use it the most. Since the death of the original founder of Little Free Libraries, Todd Bol, in 2018, the movement has shifted to target neighborhoods with the greatest need for literacy. One such neighborhood is Brightmoor, Detroit, where I started a Little Free Library in front of a church I volunteered at. I replenished books regularly, scavenging through my house to find novels I read as a child. When I returned the following week, the books were nearly all gone. In contrast, the Little Library built in my hometown neighborhood of Canton, a middle-class suburb, doesn’t see nearly as much use. 

The role of Little Free Libraries have shifted in light of the COVID-19 pandemic — sharing books comes with a risk. Nevertheless, Kozlowski believes that, with the right precautions, Little Libraries may become even more important. As winter approaches and outdoor gatherings become difficult, we’ll all likely be locked up a bit more. “What better time to spend with a book?” Kozlowski asked. “They can take you to a lot of different places even though you might not be able to leave your home.” 

—Trina Pal, Daily Arts Writer

Like Kozlowski, my mother shared a similar sentiment. About an hour from Detroit, there has never been much to do in my rural Michigan town — not to mention in current times when another lockdown is pending — but that has not stopped my mother before. While Detroit Little Libraries started in 2014, it was my mother’s quarantine mission to set up a Little Free Library filled with diverse titles and authors in our front yard. 

My father and I heeded her command; we dug through the thick layer of clay beneath the meticulously cut grass, constructed a cement pathway and put the library together. I was worried that my mother’s books would waste away inside the wooden box, a thought that quickly vanished the moment a group of bike-riding children halted in front of our house and dug through the library as if it were buried treasure. 

Over the next few weeks, we watched other curious children, strolling senior citizens and mail carriers become briefly captivated by the library before leaving with a book or two in their unfamiliar hands. 

It was a more humane transaction than I ever would have thought; especially considering the isolation that has kept strangers’ worlds from merging since the lockdown in March. I wasn’t sure if it was the act of taking a book — a piece of myself or another family member who had placed our beloved stories inside — or the general sense of togetherness the Little Free Library appeared to sponsor. 

As a lover of books and reading myself, it wasn’t until we had constructed our Little Free Library that I realized how much I missed bookstores and libraries: the distinct smells associated with old and new books, reading the thoughts and opinions of other readers tacked to shelves in Literati, even the simple act of entering a world of books and leaving my reality behind. Since quarantine, bookstores across the country have closed or begun solely conducting business online. Little Free Libraries, however, have evolved in the opposite sense: Nationwide, Little Free Libraries have been repurposed in an effort to help people and inspire people throughout the pandemic. 

From California to Colorado to Wisconsin and even Massachussetes, Little Free Libraries have been repurposed to suit the present needs of communities across the nation: some people have turned their neighborhood libraries into food banks; others have stocked theirs with toilet paper; some have been stuffed with hand-made masks; and even local schools have become involved. 

With grocery prices increasing and paper products disappearing, the growing needs of communities are undeniable and do not look to be resolved in the coming months. Dr. Fauci’s warning to “hunker down” for the upcoming winter season makes the efforts of Little Free Libraries more imperative for supporting our communities and neighbors as we await what lies ahead.

In the meantime, some communities have decided to rename their libraries “Little Free Pantries,” providing essentials like pasta or canned goods from their own stock at home. This evolution has been especially appreciated in existing food-insecure states, but may also be helpful reinforcements in other states due to the increasing number of Americans in need of food banks as a result of the negative impacts of the pandemic. 

This transformation of Little Free Libraries still maintains the founder’s original purpose: to bring communities together. In an interview with the Milwaukee Street Journal, Margret Aldrich, the head of media and programming for Hudson-Based Little Free Library, explains this humane narrative: “There was already this infrastructure of people who were already sharing and looking out for each other in their communities, so it was very easy to transform them into boxes sharing more than books.”

The transformations of Little Free Libraries has led to another notable revolution: their increasing popularity. In other rural communities like mine, people have turned to Little Free Libraries for entertainment. Where the internet may not be guaranteed, books have become the principal pastime of quarantine. Now that school has started, it is a tradition for the kids in my neighborhood to stop by the library after getting off at their bus stop. Perhaps the books are their support, something that helps them navigate an unusual time and space. 

In times of crisis, it can be easy to overlook small moments of kindness, but as the transformation of Little Free Libraries nationwide reveals, there is always a way to uplift one’s community and support those around you. With Little Free Libraries, this sentiment is exaggerated due to the origins of its movement — the act of sharing a book with another is perhaps one of the most intimate human transactions, a symbolic need of an isolated world. The determination of people like my mother to build Little Free Libraries during a pandemic and the resolution of others to repurpose them for the current needs of their communities is a powerful nod to Todd Bol, the founder of Little Free Libraries, and the legacy he leaves behind.

—Lilly Pearce, Daily Arts Writer

Daily Arts Writers Trina Pal and Lilly Pearce can be reached at trpal@umich.edu and pearcel@umich.edu.


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