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The Littlest Libraries
The tiny lenders have quickly become a very big deal.

Photo by Erin Gosch. 

When I came across a Little Free Library a couple of years ago on a Madison bike trail, I found the idea very appealing. Like birdhouses for books, these weatherproof bookshelves are popping up all over the metro area, and all around the country, too, inviting you to take a book, leave a book, or maybe just browse.

My son, Ben, and I like to build things, and as we debated projects last summer, I thought back to that little trailside library. Dreaming up our own, we settled on a straightforward design that used redwood boards and a leaded-glass window we rescued from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Milwaukee (420 S. First St.). Our first door fell off, but luckily, the glass didn’t break. (Blueprints are available online, but that’s not our style.) After adding a beefed-up frame, stronger hinges and caulking for the roof, we had ourselves a Little Free Library ready to withstand the elements. Only then did it occur to us that not many people walk down our quiet street in Elm Grove.

Looking for a spot with a bit more visibility, we decided to approach our new neighbors down the block. We’d seen them outside a lot, sprucing up their property – which faces a sidewalk on Watertown Plank Road – but didn’t know them well.

I waited until Jim, the husband, was outside doing some yard work. “Would you mind if I put a post in your front yard and stuck this Free Library on it?” I asked, and he looked surprised.

“I guess,” he replied, “but let me check with the city. And my wife.” 

His wife, Rachel, not only approved but liked the idea so much, she offered to provide custom stencil lettering and a protective finish, and Jim consulted the Diggers Hotline. Once our little structure had been erected, both families helped to stock the shelves with books, including a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright and a few novels concerning Harry Potter. In the ensuing months, the library has seen a lot of foot and automotive traffic. One woman told me her work schedule makes it hard to patronize the Elm Grove Public Library, so she uses our Little Free one. Another woman (one of the drive-up patrons) works at a bookstore and drops off unneeded advance copies of books, so we sometimes have new titles.

I spoke with Dyan Barbeau, a Little Library owner in Wauwatosa who described a similar experience. A librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan, she’d begun sharing books with her neighbors through a Little Library designed by her husband, Tim, and – as in my case – was amazed by her neighbors’ response.

Turns out, this infectious phenomenon began in Wisconsin. The Little Free Library I’d seen in Madison was one of the first built. The very first arose in Hudson where a civic-minded craftsman named Todd Bol constructed and distributed several more, allowing the bug to spread. In 2009, Bol teamed up with Rick Brooks, a “social entrepreneur” from Madison, and founded littlefreelibrary.org, which serves as a clearinghouse for all things Little Library. Its map shows more than 100 in the Milwaukee area and more than 15,000 worldwide.

The suggested guidelines are simple: take a book, leave a book, take care of the library and be a good neighbor. There are no check-out slips or overdue fines. If you really like a book, you can keep it. And you don’t have to whisper.

We’ve been busy upgrading our own Little Library with solar lighting. We modified a small yard light so it shines on the shelves when the sun goes down, heralding the start of evening hours.

And my wife has also been busy. Using a cookbook called Chez Panisse Fruit she found at our LFL, she recently made a summer tart.

Browsing has also led my son to a vintage Peanuts comic book, right next to the duds – the dry self-help titles and romance novels. It provided a welcome distraction from his iPad.

-- By Andy Vrakas 




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