February 28, 2012

Phone booth libraries: They’re everywhere


John Locke's NYC library booth

A new take on the public library seems to be sweeping the nation, in one form or another. Last week Moby posted about Columbia University architecture school grad John Locke’s project of re-purposing two unused New York City public phone booths. Though the city did not take kindly to his efforts, and removed the roadside libraries, the idea is evidently in the air.

Taywana James at the Little Free Library in Syracuse, NY

Another instance of the phone booth becoming a very public library has cropped up in Syracuse, NY. According to this report in the Syracuse Post-Standard, Tyawana James, whose nom-de-bibliothèque is Mother Earth, “is the steward of the Syracuse’s first Little Free Library, which opened early this month in an abandoned telephone box near a bus stop and grocery store on Gifford Street.”

The Little Free Library credo is “take a book, leave a book,” and according to the Post Standard, that has been pretty much the rule:

Books have been moving fast out of the curbside library. It is empty or nearly so when James checks it every day or two. Only a couple of books have been returned, but that’s OK as far as she is concerned. At this point she has plenty of donated books with which to restock the library.

“I kind of envision people finding a good book, reading it and passing it on to somebody else,” James said.

James is a mother, poet and artist, and the community volunteer who tends the library, conveniently located one block from her home.  ”James struggled in school to learn to read. But, she never did until after she dropped out and eventually taught herself,” according to the Post-Standard.

As modest as it seems, the Little Free Library has become a worldwide movement:

Rick Brooks, co-founder of the Little Free Library movement, estimates there are 300 to 400 little libraries in 33 states and 17 countries. He doesn’t know if most people bring books back. In the Little Free Library movement, the return rate doesn’t seem to be a critical data point.

Brooks runs a continuing education and outreach program at the University of Wisconsin —Madison. He founded The Little Library project with Todd Bol, who began it as a tribute to his mom, installing in his yard a small replica of a school house—like a fancy mailbox or bird house—and stocked it with books to share.

Brooks met Bol at a workshop in 2009, heard about the project, and thought it was a good idea, according to the Post-Standard:

From there, they formed the Little Free Library venture. Its mission is to promote literacy and the love of reading, build a sense of community and build more than 2,510 libraries around the world, more than Andrew Carnegie.

“It’s an experiment for all of us, but what we’ve found in several hundred instances, it’s an experiment that seems to be rooted so much in people’s yearning for a sense of community that generally these are safe, and there’s just almost like a halo around an awful lot of these libraries,” he said.

The Little Free Library has become a focal point for the Syracuse community, bringing together college students, working mothers, busy commuters and people who might not make it to the public library—though the project is also designed to raise the local library’s profile. Jaime Snyder, a doctoral candidate in information studies at Syracuse University who coordinates the little library project, explained to the Post-Standard:

“There is a public library in that neighborhood, but it’s not right in the heart of the Near West Side, so the idea for this was not necessarily to replace the public library but to create sort of satellite outposts that would guide people into the library,” she said. “So all of the books that we’ve put into the Little Free Library have a bookplate that draws attention to where you can find your local library.”

Donations of new or gently used books are encouraged. In three weeks time, they’ve already gone through 120 books.

More information about the international Little Free Library movement is available here.

Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.