November 21, 2012

Little Free Libraries banned — or at least, put in the back yard


Orphan in a cold, cold Wisconsin storm

In what can only be described as a fairly dick move, the town of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, has decided to ban Little Free Libraries, the most adorable manifestation of libraries to date.

Little Free Libraries (more of which you can see here) are an initiative that’s been taken up across the country, and indeed the organizers of it have proudly announced on their website that they’ve recently passed 2,509 libraries, the total number of libraries that Andrew Carnegie endowed worldwide.

But the Whitefish Bay Village Board does not look kindly on this whole promoting of community, literacy, and, not to be ignored, woodworking skills thing, and it wants them out. According to a report by Jim Stingl for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after a well-meaning Whitefish Bay resident requested formal permission from a building inspector to erect a Little Free Library in their front yard, the request went up the chain of command, until it reached the members of the Board, who, in the grand tradition of dictatorial perverseness, didn’t ban the Little Free Libraries outright — they just said that they could only be set up in back yards …thereby completely defeating the purpose of a Little Free Library.

There was one lone voice of protest on the board, Richard Foster, who said of the whole discussion:

“It’s ridiculous. This is a harmless activity. People exchange books there. If this gets to be a problem, then we’ll do something about it. But not now.”

Other trustees argued that it could all get out of hand — and remember that at this point in the talks, there is one and only one Little Free Library in Whitefish Bay, in front of Christ Church Episcopal (and yes, it’s in the form of a little church) and one proposed Little Free Library, dreamt up by someone who was thoughtful enough to ask a building inspector if they could put up what is basically a birdhouse for books. From a report by Jeff Rumage in the Whitefish Bay Patch:

“There seems to be no end to the silliness that we think of where these things can go,” Village Manager Patrick DeGrave said at Monday night’s Village Board meeting. “Not just in the size, shape, color or oddities, but what can go in there? You’re not going to regulate what goes inside.”

The true face of the Whitefish Bay Village Board is revealed! This isn’t about what you can or can’t put in your front yard (incidentally: mailboxes are also prohibited from occupying Whitefish Bay front yards, indicating there is a seriously disturbing level of pristine-front-lawn fetishism present in this community). This is about the fear of what might be in those insidious, enormous, brightly colored, oddly decorated structures. Never mind that Christ Church’s Little Free Library currently contains “21 books, many leaning toward spirituality and self-improvement,” or that Little Free Libraries in general seem like a natural outlet for all the books people have and want to get rid of, and for this most part this tends to be The Prince by Niccolo Macchiavelli, Three Cups of Tea, and a Fodor’s Bolivia guide. It’s about what could be in there. To the Whitefish Bay Village Board I say, you have misunderstood the whole point of Little Free Libraries! And also, the First Amendment to the US Constitution.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.