Updated: Oct 28, 2018
The history of the Little Free Library (https://littlefreelibrary.org) is rooted in a vernacular movement that started in the Midwest. In 2009, in Hudson, Wisconsin, Todd Bol built a wooden box with a glass door and modeled it after a one-room schoolhouse, in honor of his mother’s career as a teacher. The idea grew and by 2012, Little Free Libraries (LFL) became a nonprofit that was on a mission to spread more of these library boxes across the nation. LFL allows people to customize and paint their library box to express their personal artistic creativity. There are many placed in public spaces such as schools and private spaces such as homes around the city of Chicago. According to the study, Little Free LibrariesⓇ: Interrogating the Impact of the Branded Book Exchange, done by Jane Schmidt and Jordan Hale, LFL present a very complicated and problematic structure of monopolizing space, questioning the intent of the nonprofit.
The corporate marketing strategy of the LFL runs counter to the values that are embodied by public libraries. These boxes are found mainly in predominantly white rich neighborhoods, falling into the nonprofit industrial complex where the privileged public choses who and how to help them. By placing books in a non book desert zone and sharing books specific to someone's personal library that shows off high literacy, the public space then become a statue of notoriety. The LFL states they are fighting book deserts and increasing literacy, but the box itself is also an exclusive ownership that comes with a heavy price and a license to use their name. Among other problems revolving around the LFL and the negative effect they may have by activating a specific space, there are few positive examples of LFL working with public libraries to encourage reading. The study further suggests that LFL is a prime example of good intentions behind mission and goals that end up in the neoliberal cycle of commodification by taking on a task that the government can’t fix. It is important to keep in mind the pure intentions of any project that aims to work with the community to better itself while being conscious about the impact it leaves, especially as a signifier and activator of space. Aside from good intentions, many communities claimed they did experience stronger bonds with community members and met new neighbors. The box in a way becomes an object needing communal stewardship.
LFL indeed brings visibility to a private or public landscape and activates the space they are situated in. Vernacular artists are prime masters at turning a private space public and understand how space functions within a larger context. They are innovators and architectural geniuses and the Better Homes & Gardens class has opened my eyes to thinking about space in creative ways where anything is possible. My further inquiry about truck art as a LFL took me to Devon in Chicago, a street predominantly filled with South Asian restaurants and stores. I began to wonder about the lack of art in this culturally specific space and what the LFL would do for the community that lives around Devon Avenue and the tourists who visit there. Most of my research around these questions is rooted in the concept of space as an educative functionary. How do I work with public libraries to increase literacy, increase tourism on Devon where participants get a well rounded experience of food, clothing, literature, and art, and finally, establish a performative safe space in a culturally specific site that serves as an educational ground for preadolescents.
The website is a resource tool for anyone who wants to build their own Little Free Library with the option of purchasing a serial number for the box to place it on the LFL map. This map allows you to search the LFLs in your neighborhood if you are either looking to donate to it or borrow a book. The website also has information about designing and installing the box, along with other helpful tools. My plan is to order the wood needed for the Truck Art box once I have a blueprint completed. Here are some pictures of the Little Free Libraries I have come across around Chicago since discovering the one that inspired this project. They are placed in various settings from main business and gallery roads, neighborhoods, playgrounds, and my personal favorite, the magazine stand at the CTA station turned LFL. You have to appreciate the effort and creativity of it!
The reason why I call this project a 'social experiment' is due to both the positive and negative effects of the LFL in a community. I'm curious to see what will happen at Devon once I plant one there. There concept of free is necessary to consider in studying how people react to resources available and studying community engagement is foremost important before entering into a community as an outsider. Below are a list of articles you can read about how communities react to the LFL.
Little Free Libraries Interrogating the Impact of the Branded Book Exchange. Authors: Jane Schmidt and Jordan Hale
Against Little Free Libraries. By Kriston Capps www.citylab.com
My Little Free Library war: How our suburban front-yard lending box made me hate books and fear my neighbors By Dan Greenstone www.salon.com
The Danger of Being Neighborly Without a Permit. By Conor Friedersdorf www.theatlantic.com
The Question of Little Free Libraries: Are they a boon or bane to communities? By Megan Cottrell. Www.americanlibrariesmagazine.org