Little Free Libraries Aim to Do Good, But Not Everyone is a Fan

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Two librarians are not entirely pleased with Little Free Libraries.

The huts you may find dispersed around your neighborhood — there’s a presence in all 50 states and in more than 70 countries — are meant to share a love of reading with a simple “take a book, leave a book” model.

But Canadian academics Jane Schmidt and Jordan Hale argue in a new report that, while well-intended, the growth of Little Free Libraries doesn’t help people who actually need help accessing reading material.

What’s Wrong with a Little Free Library?

Schmidt and Hale explain that there’s nothing wrong with Little Free Libraries in concept. What’s not working right is the way they’ve spread.

The pair examined placement of Little Free Libraries in Toronto and Calgary, and found that these book exchanges tend to be concentrated in higher-income, higher-educated neighborhoods. Further, regular old libraries also exist in these areas.

This argument from the report, shared by Kriston Capps at The Atlantic, hurts a little if you’ve ever dropped off a few books at your nearest Little Free Library — or have considered setting one up yourself:

“We submit that these data reinforce the notion that [Little Free Libraries] are examples of performative community enhancement, driven more so by the desire to showcase one’s passion for books and education than a genuine desire to help the community in a meaningful way.”

Ouch.

Why We Can’t Have Free Things

Capps points out that Little Free Library kits are not exactly cheap. The cheapest ready-made version is a branded “Mobile” Little Free Library bin ideal for an apartment-building lobby, priced at $69.

Registering to be included on the Little Free Library world map comes with a plaque for your bird box of books, and costs about $45.

But hand-made and/or unofficial Little Free Libraries abound. Plus, The Little Free Library nonprofit offers an Impact Fund to provide free Little Free Library structures to enthusiastic applicants, regardless of socioeconomic status. Recipients agree to look after their Little Free Library for a minimum of one year, and are provided a “starter collection of books” to kick off its arrival.

If you don’t have private property on which to stake your book display, you must get permission to install a Little Free Library before applying to the Impact Fund.

The librarians recommend feeding more energy and funding into local library systems, to include mobile library services.

Schmidt, for all her own good intentions, shoots herself in the foot with this statement during an interview with the CBC:

“I always say that a reluctant reader would be very hard-pressed to find something that was very appealing to them. To say you’re enhancing literacy in a community that otherwise doesn’t have access to books, you’re not doing that when you’re providing them with access to the Windows 2000 manual for dummies … or the self-published poetry. I don’t want to diss self-published poetry, I’m sorry. But, we’ve all seen inside a Little Free Library or a book exchange, however you want to refer to them, and sometimes the books just aren’t that great.”

While wildly hit-or-miss depending on your genre preference, yes, Little Free Libraries and their unofficial versions still provide a sense of community.

They may not cure library deserts in under-supported neighborhoods, sure. But the Little Free Libraries I’ve encountered have sparked conversation among neighbors in a time when even city living can feel lonely. They can provide inspiration and encouragement to read along cross-town bus routes that pass through a dozen neighborhoods, both affluent and not.

And they’re open all the time, serving the shift worker, restless night owl and the nine-to-five’r alike.

What’s wrong with leaving free books out for your neighbors — whomever they may be — in a structure that keeps them dry? Nothing.

Your Turn: What’s your take on Little Free Libraries? Awesome movement, or hindrance to libraries?

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder. She is also the daughter of a librarian.