Imagine walking down the street and stopping to pick up a new book – for free! Now imagine that instead of stepping into a big library or spacious bookstore, you stoop down slightly to open a little glass door, and before you sits a shelf of neatly-lined books curated by your neighbors. Meet the Little Free Library, which is just what it sounds like, yet much more.
Little Free Libraries are miniature structures that look like a house, complete with a glass door, sloping roof, and one or two shelves. They are filled with books placed by the community for the community. Initially created with the intention of promoting literacy, they also serve to brighten up a place — think community beautification through functional public art. They provide easily-accessible reading materials to those who might not otherwise have access.
While the concept originated in Wisconsin in 2009, several organizations and individuals in West Virginia have installed their own throughout the state. There are now over 50 active Little Free Libraries scattered in all corners of WV — you can see a map of them here.
Many individuals who set up their own Little Free Libraries in West Virginia were motivated to promote literacy in the state, while some simply enjoy the idea of sharing. Ann Logan of Morgantown “just loved the idea of having this way to share literary works with the community and…the idea of young people being excited about reading and having books of their own.”
While some individuals set up a Little Free Library on their own property, several stewards in West Virginia chose downtown locations, selecting areas with high traffic and visibility. For instance, CJ Rylands of Create Buckhannon worked with a team to install one right on Main Street in front of the Buckhannon-Upshur Chamber of Commerce. He offers this enchanting story:
“One of our stewards was putting some books in a Little Free Library at a public housing complex when the afternoon school bus pulled up to drop off students. When the elementary age kids got off the bus they raced toward the Little Free Library, anxious to see what new offerings were in the library. I don’t think there is easier way to combat illiteracy and thus poverty than the Little Free Library.”
By the end of 2015, Upshur County had over 25 Little Free Libraries, including at all six of the county’s elementary schools. They are also hoping to add ten more by August 2016.
Another steward, Rachel Hawkins of Salem, WV, wanted to share her personal love of literature with her community. She also selected a well-frequented central location for her Little Free Library so that people could access it easily, choosing a spot along the rail trail in downtown Salem. “We live in a Title 1 school zone, most kids in this area are growing up in underprivileged homes…I wanted those kids to have books, lots of books at their disposal.”
Once a Little Free Library is installed, it becomes a community asset. Stewards recruit different people or partner with community organizations to help build or decorate it, and even to help pay for the materials. The easiest way for others to contribute is to donate books to get it started.
Each Little Free Library exhibits a personal touch. Some feature paintings by local artists while others are found in city parks, such those installed in Weston by Lewis County First, a community group working to better Lewis County. Another man donated a little library in memory of his wife; it was decorated with flowers and butterflies to honor her memory.
According to most stewards, the process to set one up is easy. Making a library official requires filling out a simple online form, paying a small fee to receive a Little Free Library plaque, and might involve city approvals, depending on the location and property ownership.
The initial cost can be a project challenge, however this became an incentive to get others involved. Another challenge is keeping the shelves stocked. The Little Free Library organization recommends holding a Grand Opening party and inviting friends, neighbors, and community members to bring a book to get it started. Another way to collect books is to keep an eye out for book sales. Ms. Logan discovered that the Clarksburg public library has an extensive book sale twice a year — she walked away with three “huge” boxes of books for about $20. Other groups partnered with local Lions Clubs, the local Rotary Club, and local libraries to donate books. Sometimes complete strangers donate them.
The Little Free Libraries are a way to promote literacy, sharing, and community beautification. According to Ms. Hawkins, “The children’s section [on the lower shelf] is in need of filling more often and that makes me HAPPY! It has become a place, for kids especially, to look forward to growing and expanding their minds. It’s a hub that people stop at and can pick up and drop off not only books but magazines and DVDs.”
Each steward who contributed to this article strongly recommends other communities in West Virginia to start a Little Free Library. For those interested in setting one up, visit the Little Free Library website for building plans, ideas for different designs, and tips from veteran Little Free Library stewards on how to install one and keep it stocked.