A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

There Was Life Before Little Free Libraries

by Melanie A. Lyttle and Shawn D. Walsh on August 24, 2015

For the past few years, many libraries have been taking their discarded books to make little free libraries in different places. Patrons can even buy their own little free library structures to put in their yards if they so choose. Yet when using your discarded books and magazines to put in beautifully built structures, are you forgetting who else could use your materials?

Abraham Lincoln said, “My best friend is a person who would give me a book I have not read,” and his idea still rings true today. As librarians we want to foster the love of reading with everyone we meet, especially those who need to have books in their life but do not for one reason or another. As librarians, we have access to books and materials every single day, and many of us have extensive collections of books at home. However, what about the people who do not have book collections at home or the people who cannot for one reason or another come to the library?

The basic idea of a little free library is a person takes a book and leaves another one for someone else. However, some social service agencies for years have been using libraries’ discarded books to create their own collections for their clients. The difference is many times clients are encouraged to keep the books to add to their meager home collections. There is no expectation that the materials will be returned or exchanged. Some people do that though. They borrow the materials, read them, and bring them back when they can. Sometimes the agencies get books directly from the library either by receiving the discarded materials as donations or purchasing them through the libraries’ book sales. Other times, individual members of the agencies, usually volunteers, make it their mission to find books from the library that they think their clients might like. It is a little free library.

Places like food banks, senior centers, women’s shelters, and homeless shelters are popular places for old library books to find a new life. Frequently any place where someone might have to wait for a long time and need something to do, there is probably a person from the institution who has collected books for people to take. They are also collecting things for people of all ages to read. And with no expectation of the materials returning, there could be some more unusual items available. For example, a senior center may have a handful of children’s books on hand. There aren’t going to be children living at the senior center, but the books are there for the seniors to take home and have for grandchildren or other people that age.

As a library, looking for places in the community that need books for their clients is a great way to open doors. Partnering to provide materials may invite other types of partnerships as well. It could be speaking engagements, sharing grant monies, or co-sponsoring programming, but the more connections libraries have to other community institutions the better it is for everyone.

While we know that when we discard a book it means it no longer has a place in the public library, it may be the perfect book for someone else in a different place. That could be in a little free library. It could be on the shelf in a community food bank waiting room for a child to select, read, and keep. That book that is now all his maybe helped make a trying situation a little better. Or there could be a novel that now a woman at a homeless shelter finds and keeps with her few possessions because it reminds her of a different time and place in her life.

As librarians we want people to find the joy of reading, whether it’s in the library or somewhere else.

Melanie A. Lyttle is the Head of Public Services Madison Public Library. You can watch her YouTube channel, Crabby Librarian, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Rv5GLWsUowShawn D. Walsh is the Emerging Services and Technologies Librarian at Madison Public Library.

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