An eclectic cache of books inside a rainbow-colored cabinet offers relief from the tedium of waiting for a train at the Amtrak station in Essex Junction. “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” promises the Dr. Seuss exhortation painted on the door of this outdoor literary dispensary. “Take a Book, Return a Book,” urges another sign nailed to the frame of the handmade structure with a cedar-shingle roof.
It’s one of several Little Free Libraries that have sprouted up in the past year or two in Vermont’s public spaces and front yards. They’re manifestations of a national movement to promote literacy and neighborliness by making books available to anyone who wants something to read.
“We just thought it was a cool idea,” says Darby Brazoski, who works near the train station as an economic-development assistant for the Village of Essex Junction. She and a friend, Gabrielle Smith, helped organize construction of that Little Free Library a year ago as part of a community-service day in honor of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The installation has proven highly popular, with books regularly arriving at and departing from the train station. “Some days, the stock is overflowing because someone feels they should leave a bunch of books after taking one or two,” Smith notes.
Smith, a diminutive community activist, supplies much of the energy animating the book exchange in Essex, which will soon inaugurate its fourth Little Free Library. Her husband, Michael, builds the structures as part of his woodworking hobby.
It’s no wonder Smith is an especially enthusiastic advocate of the guerrilla library initiative, given she’s a friend of one of its original instigators. While studying at the University of Wisconsin in the early ’90s, Smith got to know Rick Brooks, who’s credited as the cofounder of what is now a worldwide book exchange. Brooks marketed the concept spawned by a colleague, Todd Bol, who in 2009 built a miniature one-room schoolhouse, mounted it on a pole outside his home in Hudson, Wis., and filled it with books as a memorial to his mother, a teacher and bibliophile.
The movement’s website states its aim of surpassing the total of 2510 “free libraries” built over 50 years by super-rich industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who died in 1919. The “free” designation distinguished Carnegie’s institutions from the 19th-century subscription libraries that charged membership fees. Among his legacies is the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, which Carnegie seeded with a $50,000 donation.
An even more democratic impulse propels the Little Free Library phenomenon. “You can keep a book; there’s no sense of urgency about having to return it,” notes Jacques-Paul Marton, a custodian at the University of Vermont who established the “Book Nook” in a pub at the Davis student center three years ago.
What Marton began has been adopted by students as a project that gets bigger every semester. The Book Nook initially consisted of a single shelf holding about 30 volumes, Marton recalls. It now stretches over three shelves, with a fourth to be added this summer, accommodating some 200 books. Faculty members have begun taking part in what Marton hopes will become “a venerable UVM tradition.” He sees students thumb through Book Nook offerings every day of the academic year, Marton says, even though most could be reading electronic editions or borrowing books from the university’s Bailey/Howe Library 100 yards away.
“There’s a free-form aspect to it” that students find appealing, Marton suggests. They don’t need a library card or ID to snag a book.
That’s one of the features that Old North End resident Charles Winkleman says he finds “awesome” about the Little Free Library that stands near the corner of Monroe and North Champlain streets in Burlington. Winkleman, 24, suggests that these random repositories attract members of his generation who don’t often go to “regular libraries.” Those can be “overwhelming” to someone who reads mostly in e-book form, Winkleman explains as he browses the collection. It’s situated a few feet from a front-yard coop in which four chickens are clucking contentedly.
Neither this converted apple box nor the UVM Book Nook is listed on the national registry posted on Bol and Brooks’ Little Free Library website. The $35 fee they charge for inclusion on that roster is used to help advance a drive that has reached 36 countries. The estimated worldwide tally of 6000 Little Free Libraries more than doubles Carnegie’s achievement.
Eight exchange sites in Vermont are pinpointed on the Little Free Library website map, which posts GPS coordinates.
No one knows just how many have been erected around the state by public-spirited locals who haven’t registered with the national organization. For example, in Bolton, middle school librarian Steve Madden has built five Little Free Libraries. His effort can be taken as an answer to the question of why the give-away-and-donate sites are needed: His town lacks a traditional public library. “There’s a lot of towns like Bolton that don’t have libraries,” Gabrielle Smith notes. In others, public library hours “can be very restrictive,” she adds. A Little Free Library, by contrast, works as a funky, noncorporate counterpart to Amazon.com in that it’s always open.
Terry Ryan did pay to list the rural Little Free Library he built down the driveway from his home on East Street in Huntington. The retired U.S. Navy commander modeled the structure on the chalet-style architecture of his house. Ryan keeps the library stocked with a variety of books, including several “tomes” on political science, a subject he taught as a professor at Jacksonville University in Florida. Dog walkers and joggers regularly stop to browse, he reports, with members of the former group perhaps especially intrigued by the large number of books on organic dog food that someone has been leaving.
The do-it-yourself aspect proves enticing to wannabe architects as well as to retired professional librarians. Susan Keeler combines those two attributes; she’s worked as both a school librarian and a newsroom librarian at the Burlington Free Press. Last year Keeler and her husband built a model in her yard on Alderbrook Road in Essex that features maple door frames and a map of Essex superimposed on its roof.
Design klutzes don’t need to feel excluded from the movement. The Little Free Library website includes a how-to guide for builders. Supporters can also order a simple, ready-made model from the site for $250, or choose custom-painted versions and specialized styles, such as a Scandinavian Cottage and an Amish Barn Wood Cabin, at prices starting at $400.
Skeptics may wonder whether there’s any negative aspect to what appears to be an entirely wholesome undertaking.
For one thing, vandalism does occasionally occur. Somebody spray-painted “LUCKY” on the Little Free Library at the Essex Junction train station, Brazoski reports; the tag was quickly erased.
Some down-and-out Vermonters use the libraries as a means of making a few dollars by scooping up books and toting them to second-hand shops. Sponsors of Little Free Libraries, including the one on Monroe and North Champlain streets, attempt to prevent such wholesale takeaways by stamping “Not for Resale” on the inside covers of the donated books. As for the turnover of books, it varies widely by library. In her experience, Smith says, some users take and don’t leave, others leave and don’t take, and many do both.
Issues of free speech may arise, as well, when various organizations attempt to use a Little Free Library as a station for distributing propaganda or recruitment materials.
Smith and Brazoski have instituted a policy of excluding religious tracts from the library they oversee at the Amtrak station. Jehovah’s Witnesses left copies of the Watchtower there on four occasions, Brazoski recounts. They were removed each time, and the sponsors finally decided to post a sign indicating that religious material was not welcome.
Politics poses no such concerns to the pair, however. Smith notes that books by radical leftist Noam Chomsky are often left at the train-station outpost. “That’s fine,” she says, “but we do try to encourage a balance.” Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, for example, has also been represented in the collection.
What about porn? Does anyone leave copies of, say, Hustler in Little Free Libraries?
Not so far in Essex, Smith reports, sounding horrified at the prospect. “We haven’t had any cases of that kind of inappropriate literature,” she says.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Easy Reader"