Thoughts on Little Libraries

Free Book Exchange, corner of Grant & Lafayette outside Sweetness_7 Café, Buffalo, NY, December 2011. Photo by author, (c)2011, all rights reserved. This essay was originally published at LinkedIn in May 2019. It has been lightly edited.

Because Little Free Library™ (LFL) is a trademarked brand, for the purposes of this article, I will call book boxes on posts Little Libraries (LLs). 

Over the 2018 Labor Day weekend, I got the idea to do a Google map of LLs in Buffalo, which I later expanded to Erie County. Several LLs had appeared in my neighborhood and most were not registered with the international LFL organization, so they did not appear on the official LFL map. It was a fun holiday project that grew into an ongoing spatial record of LL activity.

In May 2019, the Elmwood Village Association asked if they could incorporate my LL addresses into their own map. I agreed on the grounds that I get credited, with a link back. BuffaloRising.com, in turn, ran a story on the two maps, including a screenshot and link to my map. Whereupon debate ensued in the comments. I decided to post a single response here, rather than exchange tit-for-tat with testy BuffaloRising readers.

LLs are a creative solution to the fact that in many places, book supply exceeds demand. There are more books than there are collectors or libraries or used bookstores or rummage sales who want or need them.

At the LLs I frequent, the selection is usually popular fiction and children’s books. Once everyone who is likely to read the latest bestseller has read the latest bestseller, thousands of surplus copies will be available. Their market value is negligible. Most fiction has a short shelf life and minimal lasting significance, research value, or long-term collectability. It makes sense to give these books away.

Most LLs are voluntarily erected at a private expense on private property. The vast majority of Buffalo LLs I mapped are on residential property, a front lawn adjacent to the sidewalk. If people installed them on the tree lawn between the sidewalk and street, which is public property, the City could legally remove them, though in the absence of safety or nuisance issues, I hope they would not bother.

There is no centralized agency that funds LLs or capriciously concentrates them in well-off neighborhoods. The official Little Free Library organization does have a grant program to fund installations in marginalized neighborhoods, however, and they underwrite around a dozen per month.

While searching online for LL mentions in Buffalo, I learned of four organized LL campaigns. Two were led by neighborhood associations, which explains two of the clusters on my map. It would fall outside the geographic scope of their mission to install LLs anywhere other than the areas they serve.

  1. In 2013, the Parkside Community Association organized an LL program
  2. In 2016, the University Heights Collaborative held a fundraiser to support LLs in the University district
  3. In 2017, the Buffalo Architectural Foundation ran a design competition with the goal of placing LLs in low-income Buffalo neighborhoods
  4. From 2016-2018, Slow Roll Buffalo installed some LLs in low-income neighborhoods

At the moment, LLs are a popular lawn accessory, just as artificial ponds were the must-have garden feature 15 years ago. If I could map artificial ponds in Buffalo backyards, I imagine that the densest clusters of them would pretty much line up with the densest clusters of LLs. Both are markers of disposable income. The difference is that LLs are easier to maintain than pondlets and offer public rather than private enjoyment.

While LLs are charming, they are no help to anyone who needs to do meaningful research: school reading assignments, term papers, local history, family history, job-hunting, health & medicine, learning English, studying for your citizenship exam. They do not offer free computer and internet access, proprietary database access, personal how-do-I-find-X advice, computer training classes, story hours, maker spaces, book clubs, e-books, kids’ activities, copy machines, all the things offered by public libraries. LLs may offer random recreational reading but they do not provide professional librarians. I think most people understand this.

At this point I should mention Free Book Exchanges. They predate LLs and a few appeared here in Buffalo. In addition to the one I photographed in 2011, I recall another Free Book Exchange on Allen at Franklin. What I don’t recall is any opposition. The only difference between a Free Book Exchange and a Little Library is branding: LLs appropriate the library name and its dense web of associations.

Which brings us to the heart of the debate at BuffaloRising. Readers criticized LLs on the ground that they represent yet another maldistribution of resources and their existence might embolden funders to cut public library budgets. This fear is articulated in an essay that ran at CityLab in 2017:

“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.”

“The journal article names one place where Little Free Library exchanges may have grown at the expense of the public library system. In September 2014, the mayor of tiny Vinton, Texas, announced plans to install five Little Free Library book-stops across town—while implementing a $50 fee for access to the El Paso Public Library system to balance state-imposed budget cuts.”

The authors accused LL owners of “virtue signaling,” which makes me wonder: if installing a free book box in your front yard is virtue signaling, then what is working in an actual library or serving on its board? Virtue broadcasting?

In any event, yes, there are bad actors who promote bad ideas. Like this author at Forbes magazine, who argued that it’d be cheaper to shut down public libraries and just give everyone Amazon digital services.

The backlash was loud and swift.

Another bad idea is that we don’t need public libraries now that we have the internet. This bad idea long predates the advent of LLs and will continue to rear its ugly head after the Little Library fad has peaked. Why this is a bad idea is the subject for another essay, but here is just one of many arguments.

While it is true that LLs are concentrated in wealthy neighborhoods who do not lack for book access, the claim that LLs might inspire public library budget cuts has little merit. Garage sales have not put AmVets out of business. The Lexington Co-op has not closed down because of church & school bake sales. Annual neighborhood and park clean-up days do not inspire sanitation worker layoffs. Individuals taking in stray animals does not prompt anyone to defund the SPCA.

I suspect that had the Free Book Exchange name been widely adopted instead of Little Free Library™, no one would worry that they would inspire budget cuts to public libraries. Today’s debate is an unintended consequence of appropriating the library brand.

If you want to see more LLs in low-income neighborhoods, then by all means find someone who is willing to host one on their property–a family, church, business, or nonprofit. If you initiate or underwrite the installation of one, adopt it for the long haul and commit to keeping it stocked. Discard and replace books that are worn, damaged, or sit for weeks unclaimed.

Just don’t argue that Little Libraries are bad and there should be more of them.

Published by Cynthia Van Ness

Librarian, author, webmaster. BuffaloResearch.com is an on-my-own-time project, reflecting my own views and idiosyncracies.

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