Little Libraries Building Communities

For the last ten years of my life university libraries have spoiled me. Where else can I go browsing for cookbooks and come home with a 1951 copy of the YWCA’s “Cookery Book of Malaya,” the more academically slanted “Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?: American Women and the Kitchen in the Twentieth Century,” and “Matzo Ball Gumbo” a tail of Jewish Southern food?  Although I love having access to such a wide range and diversity of books at university libraries I also appreciate the surprises that smaller libraries bring both in their content and in their ability to bring communities together in unexpected places and forms.

  Malaya SG Cookbook cover

A cookbook from Cornell’s Hotel School Library

Part of my research while in Singapore examined the programs held at libraries and their ability to help residents interact. As architects and urban planners studying this topic my team and I constantly returned to the issue of how the space used by the program, both its physical and psychological presence, affected the community. Libraries can take a variety of interesting shapes and forms from an abandoned Walmart in Texas converted into America’s largest single-story library, to pop-up libraries at beaches around the world, with each of these typologies bringing books to people and people into closer community. The smaller library typologies though have the ability to permeate more communities in more a personalized manner as come community led projects have displayed.

In my new city, I have also been intrigued by the spaces libraries occupy, how they shape them and their communities. One of my favorite spaces is a tiny library in my neighborhood that is just larger than a birdhouse. It is located in my neighbor Traci’s front yard, right along the sidewalk, welcoming all to stop by to take or leave a book as they wish. Her library happens to be around the corner from an elementary school, attracting many young readers. It is also in a pedestrian friendly neighborhood, with many older readers walking past this library to and from Cornell everyday, or as part of their evening walks around the neighborhood.  Attracting many curious readers, Traci sometimes tries to keep books to a specify theme, sourcing about half adult books and half children’s books.

IMG_8398My neighborhood’s Little Free Library

Traci’s tiny neighborhood library is one of an estimated 15,000 across the world that is registered and mapped by the non-profit Little Free Library. Constructed in 2012 when her and her family moved to Ithaca, Traci estimated that their Little Free Library sees books exchanged nearly everyday and she has never struggled to keep it stocked. In a further effort to involved more community members Traci recently began bringing in “guest library stewards,” in the form of neighborhood children, to provide book recommendations or themes.

LFL close up

This week’s selection at our Little Free Library

The Little Free Library movement began in 2009 when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin built a model of one room red schoolhouse and filled it with books in his front yard. After constructing a few more tiny libraries in his town the idea quickly spread with the help of other community members. Today they continue to help others develop Little Free Libraries by selling kits for people to build their own libraries, as well as registering and mapping the libraries on their website, all with the mission to:

promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide.

build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.

While zoning rules and city right-of-way ordinances may get in the way of constructing tiny libraries in a few towns it is hopeful to see city officials and community members working together to bring libraries of all sizes closer to people, while also bringing people closer together. As cities, both large and small look to promote the dual goals of literacy and community building they should not ignore the big contributes that such small library spaces have in a place.

All pictures were taken by the author.


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