Little Free Library: Spreading the Love for Literature One Book at a Time

little free library

***UPDATED 1/29/15: Now with Map of Locations***If you love to read, you’ve probably been to a public or city library at least once or twice in your lifetime – but have you ever come across a small, decorated box that’s home to a handful of paperbacks in someone’s front yard? These creations, which have affectionately become known as Little Free Libraries, have exploded in popularity across the United States and have been going strong since 2009; you can even find several right here in San Diego and La Jolla. What initially began as a backyard DIY project has catapulted into the most successful book sharing organization in North America.

How Did “Little Free Libraries” Get Started?

A one-room schoolhouse, a love for literature, and the desire to spread free knowledge are all it took for Todd Bol of Wisconsin to start this project back in 2009. He built a model of a little red schoolhouse as a tribute to his mother, a former schoolteacher who loved reading. He filled it with books and put it onto a post right in his front yard; friends and neighbors were immediately intrigued and the idea caught like wildfire. He built several more and gave them to anyone who would ask – and each came with a sign that simply read “FREE BOOKS.”

little free libraryBol’s friend Rick Brooks, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, came across his experimental project and decided to get involved. Together, the two saw opportunities to achieve a wide variety of  goals for the common good. The original models were all built with purely recycled materials; each was unique but they all shared one theme: exchanging good books and bringing people in a community together for something positive. The idea is for the libraries to be largely self-sustaining – those who take a book are encouraged to leave one of their own behind for others to take, perpetuating a “free for everyone” cycle that promotes literacy and community connections. 

SEE ALSO: Want Even More Books? Check out our Independent Bookstore Guide

The Inspiration Behind the Objective 

Bol was inspired by a few notable historical characters: Andrew Carnegie himself, who at the turn of the 20th century was a staunch supporter of literature and personally oversaw the establishment of 2,500 public libraries throughout the US, Britain, Canada, and other English-speaking countries; Miss Lutie Stearns, a librarian who brought books to nearly 1400 locations in Wisconsin through “traveling little libraries” between 1895 and 1914; and grassroots “take a book, leave a book” collections that began in the 1900s in coffee shops and public spaces throughout the western US.

By the following year, the concept was starting to take off in a big way. The very first official Little Free Library was posted by a bike path on the east side of Madison in the summer of 2010. Eventually, Bol’s creations generated too much traffic to keep up with on his own, and he began working with an Amish carpenter by the name of Henry Miller who would eventually become the primary craftsman for the Libraries. He used wood recycled from a 100 year-old barn that had been destroyed in a tornado, a process that wasted nothing and required no new products so as to continue with the project’s sustainability. 

From a Backyard Project to National Success 

Close-up of LFL locations in San Diego County. There’s one in Pacific Beach!

The year 2011 brought local, regional and national media attention to the backyard project that had officially become a movement – with nearly 400 Little Free Libraries across the U.S. by the end of the year, the founders knew they had created something successful. In May of 2012, Little Free Library was officially established as a Wisconsin nonprofit corporation with a board of directors; In September, the Internal Revenue Service granted tax-exempt  status. By January of 2014, the total number of registered Little Free Libraries in the world was estimated to be nearly 15,000 – with hundreds more being built every day. 

Get Involved

Want to build your own? Head over to their website‘s “Get Involved” section. It provides detailed instructions on how to order the parts for your very own Little Library, or you can choose to build your own completely from scratch using any materials you’d like.

There are no guidelines for how the libraries should look, so use your creative imagination! We’ve seen photos of everything from Star Wars themes to Lego to old-school red telephone booths in England; the only requirement is that it contains books. There is also a complete map of all 15,000 of the Little Library locations (much like the one above, but clickable), including the several located in San Diego County.

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