Big idea, little building: Little Free Libraries bring literacy to streetcorner near you

  • The Little Free Library at Child's Park in Meredith was painted with a park scene by Kay Stuart. It was built by Meredith Rotary Club members Brian Krauntz and Jim Wallace.

  • Above: The Friends of the Meredith Library installed a Little Free Library at Leavitt Beach in Meredith, painted to look like the historic Benjamin M. Smith Memorial Library.

  • Friends of the Meredith Library member Jon Pounds built a Little Free Library, complete with skylight, at the Waukewan Beach Bathhouse in Meredith. Picasa—

  • (From left to right) Jane Lemeland, Matthew Schimitz, Nathan Schmitz, Melissa Hinebauch, and Thuy Schmitz stand for a picture with the Little Library they started on Auburn St in Concord. July 9, 2016 (JENNIFER MELI / Monitor Staff) —JENNIFER MELI

  • Melissa Hinebauch adds more children’s books to the Little Library she and her family started on Auburn Street in Concord. JENNIFER MELI / Monitor staff

  • The library on Cypress Street really glows in the sunlight. The detail on the top is actually a secret compartment. JON BODELL—

  • There's a bench right next to the Little Free Library at East Congregational Church. Perfect for sitting down with a nice read after a Sunday service.  JON BODELL—

Monitor staff
Monday, July 18, 2016

Libraries are not a new idea. Buildings to house repositories of knowledge, share information and exchange texts date back thousands of years.

But a growing movement hopes to spread libraries, perhaps to a street corner near you.

Pulled from the ideas of traveling libraries, public libraries, coffeeshop and workplace book swaps, Little Free Libraries bring small lending libraries to neighborhoods.

Since 2009, when founder Todd Bol of Hudson, Wis., put a small red schoolhouse filled with books on a post in his yard to honor his mother, the program has grown to nearly 40,000 registered Little Free Libraries and more unregistered ones.

Styled like doll, bird, dog houses and more, these little buildings hold books free for the taking with no due date, just a request to “take a book, leave a book.”

The idea is to promote literacy by making it easier than ever to access books.

Bringing a community together

The Friends of the Meredith Library, the Meredith Rotary Club and community volunteers recently installed three little libraries in high-traffic areas around their town, bringing the number of registered locations in New Hampshire to 27.

There are two registered in Concord and at least one unofficial library. Other locations span from the
northern-most one in Littleton south to one in Hudson, from one in Claremont in the west to one in Portsmouth and two in Hampton on the Seacoast.

The little libraries in Meredith are an extension of Meredith’s existing public library, said Library Director Erin Apostolos.

“I think, for sure, one of the benefits is promoting the library in the community,” she said. “It promotes literacy. It gets people talking about books. It gets people talking about the library.”

The little libraries are stocked with donated or discarded books. The library also puts bookmarks advertising the library inside and will sometimes post other information there, like for its summer reading program.

“It’s a way of reaching people who don’t usually come to the library,” Apostolos said.

She cited her husband as an example. He isn’t a big reader, but spotted a book on a famed motorcyclist and picked it up while helping with the town’s little libraries.

The Little Free Libraries have developed into something neighborhoods can congregate around.

On Auburn Street in Concord, there sits a little library built by Matt Schmitz and Melissa Hinebauch and their children.

Hinebauch said her husband and children built their library for her as a Mothers Day present and that it reminds her of Snoopy’s dog house.

The couple and their family formerly lived in Colorado and said their past neighborhood had about 14 little libraries.

The library is on the property of Jane and Charles Lemeland, since Auburn Street is busier than the side street where they live.

“I see families and kids stopping at the Little Free Library all the time,” Hinebauch said.

She added that the library has gotten a lot of positive feedback, including thank you notes left inside.

“The benefits of having a Little Free Library are enormous,” Hinebauch said. “Neighbors gather around the Little Free Library and chat. Families sit down under the tree and read together on the grass. Kids eagerly sift through the selection of books and pick their favorites. It’s like finding buried treasure when you come across a book you’ve been dying to read and there it is – for free. The Little Free Library builds community, promotes reading, encourages sharing, and connects neighbors to each other. It is magic.”

On Mountain Road in Concord, the East Congregational Church has a mini-me. Bob Berube built a little replica of the church, which the congregation uses as a library.

“I feel that our Little Free Library has been an important outreach to our larger East Concord community,” said the Rev. Michael Lowry, pastor of the church. “Many has been the time over the past year when I’ve seen people walking by on Mountain Road stopping to see what books might be in the library.”

Erica Letourneau brought up the little library to the church and has started a Facebook page “East Church Little Free Library” to promote reading and the library.

Lowry hoped more people would take advantage of the library, which in addition to books, also offers CDs.

“Our congregation has been very supportive of this project and have made use of it themselves,” Lowry said. “So far we’ve had no problems of any kind with vandalism or other damage.”

Vandalism hasn’t been a problem at other local locations, either. Apostolos and Hinebauch both said there hadn’t been issues and that libraries that weathered the winter were fine.

Keeping stock

So far, the only inconvenience is that more books tend to leave the libraries than are restocked in them.

In Meredith, Apostolos said she has volunteers who check on the library in their neighborhoods. The libraries generally must be restocked with more of the main library’s donated or discarded books each week.

Once, she said, a volunteer found a little library almost completely empty.

“People are good at taking,” she said, “they haven’t got used to putting one back.”

The Auburn Street library has faced similar issues.

“There have only been a couple times when the children’s books have been cleared out,” Hinebauch said. “Also, we had a few fairies and gnomes decorating the library, but I think they wandered off with some of the younger book readers.”

The Auburn Street library was originally stocked with books from the family’s collection, but after a while they realized they would need to supplement with other books because so many were taken.

“Whenever the pickings get slim at the Little Free Library, my kids and I head out and buy books at Goodwill, used book stores, and at the local library on their for sale shelf,” Hinebauch said.

People do contribute back, too, just not at a rate that keeps up.

“Most people take a book or two when they visit the Little Free Library. Sometimes they get around to returning a book, sometimes not,” Hinebauch said. “Occasionally, I will find a pile of new children’s books or some really good New York Times bestsellers that have been added to the collection by someone else.”

Building a library

If you’re looking to build your own, there are plans on the Little Free Library website, books, or you can use your imagination. The Little Free Library website, littlefreelibrary.org, has links and videos to lots of resources to help you get started.

In Meredith, Apostolos said they had a book as a resource.

Multiple volunteers were involved with building and erecting the little libraries. Builders included Ed and Micci Freyenhagan, Brian Krauntz, Jim Wallace and Jon Pounds. Two were painted by library staff member Kay Stuart.

Since the libraries are also all located on public land, the library had to work with the parks and recreation department and make sure the libraries were ADA compliant, with the doorknob at a height that can be reached by someone using a wheelchair.

Towns or homeowner’s associations may have rules as to what the library may look like or where it may be placed. But, the Little Free Library organization does not have rules as to appearance.

For those who create a library and wish to be considered an official Little Free Library and use its name, the group asks a one-time $40 registration fee, which will give the little library a charter and list it on the Little Free Library map.

Hinebauch suggested people interested in installing a little library join forces with another neighbor to be friendly and meet new people.

“I think the more little libraries there are, the happier we will all be,” Hinebauch said.

“The libraries draw us together and open our imaginations.”