Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Does that birdhouse filled with paperbacks on your block represent an adorable neighborhood amenity or the “corporatization of literary philanthropy”?
The take-a-book, leave-a-book movement has gone global. As of last year, Little Free Libraries—those birdhouse-looking book-stops that pop up in people’s front yards—were represented in every U.S. state. Little Free Library has now touched down in more than 70 other countries. These book exchanges are now 50,000 strong and growing.
And at least one person wants to put a stop to them.
“There was something that kind of irked me about the title,” says Jane Schmidt, librarian at Ryerson University in Toronto. “As a librarian, my gut reaction to that was, ‘You know what else is a free library? A regular library.’”
Where many people see a charming yard decoration or a heart-warming civic-minded gesture, Schmidt finds something more nefarious at work. In a recent article for the Journal of Radical Librarianship—this is a real publication, launched in 2014 by the Radical Librarians Collective, now three peer-reviewed volumes in—she and another Canadian library scholar outline the case against Little Free Libraries, diving deep into mapping data, network effects, and recent library history to make their stand.
Schmidt says that, in 2014, she found a kindred spirit—Jordan Hale, an original cataloguer and reference specialist for the University of Toronto who was also putting “hot takes out on Twitter on Little Free Libraries.” They shared an observation: They only noticed Little Free Libraries in Toronto’s wealthier neighborhoods.*
Hale, who is trained as a geographic information systems specialist, geocoded the location data for Little Free Libraries for two cities, Toronto and Calgary, drawing from lists of installations available on the Little Free Libraries website in 2015. Onto these maps, Hale and Schmidt added several data layers—median income, percentage of minority residents, education level attainment, and distance from a public-library branch—to test their hypothesis.
Their analysis shows that Little Free Libraries predominantly appear in medium- to high-income neighborhoods in Toronto (an effect that is less pronounced in Calgary, a wealthier city). For both cities, Little Free Libraries are distributed almost exclusively in neighborhoods where 25 percent or more residents have university degrees. In Toronto, Little Free Libraries sprout where public library branches are plentiful and where neighborhoods are white.
“Despite the fact that we’ve just done a case study of two Canadian cities that are probably not entirely representative of the locations of Little Free Libraries across the world, they did raise and confirm our suspicions toward the organization,” Hale says.
Schmidt and Hale conclude that Little Free Libraries are The Actual Worst. Okay, perhaps not quite that far. But they do have stinging critiques, centered mostly around the top-down branding of the universal idea of book exchanges:
We submit that these data reinforce the notion that [Little Free Libraries] are examples of performative community enhancement, driven more so by the desire to showcase one’s passion for books and education than a genuine desire to help the community in a meaningful way.
[ . . . ]
[Little Free Libraries] are a highly visible form of self-gratification cleverly disguised as book aid, and the effects of this visibility can be better understood through a consideration of their role in a landscape . . .
This kind of “branded philanthropy” serves as a vehicle for virtue-signaling by the homeowners who install Little Free Libraries in their front yards, Schmidt and Hale say. They’re particularly ubiquitous in hyper-educated, affluent, crunchy blue enclaves across the country—your Ithacas, Berkeleys, and Takoma Parks, where residents tend to wear their shabby progressivism on their sleeves. But the Little Librariest neighborhoods may be tucked away in the Midwest, where the movement got its start.
With its wild success have come some lofty assertions about what Little Free Libraries are for. Some of them, say Schmidt and Hale, are unfounded. For example, they used mapping data in Toronto to sort out the organization’s claims that its book exchanges help to water “book deserts.” Not so much: The exchanges track closely with public library branches. Schmidt also challenged the suggestion that Little Free Libraries are truly “free.” She says that she paid more than $600 (Canadian) for a Little Free Library for research purposes. (“I wanted to have the Full Monty Little Free Library experience,” she says.)
Little Free Library co-founder and executive director Todd Bol—who launched the organization in 2009 by building a one-room schoolhouse model and sticking it in the front yard of his home in Hudson, Wisconsin—says that Little Free Library exchanges come at a variety of price-points. So they do: Models range from the bare-bones Essential book-exchange box ($134) to the deluxe Walnut Grove ($995) model to the ultra-luxe Peace Pole exchange ($2,500). Most of them sell at around $250 a pop. Plenty of people choose to build their own, on their own dime, for a one-time registration fee of $40 to use the Little Free Library name.
But anyone who really wants a Little Free Library can get one, Bol says. The organization’s Impact Fund is meant to address the equity question at the root of the radical librarians’ complaint. Every month, the organization donates free exchanges to applicants who apply for one; from January through March, the group gave out 13 of them. Schmidt notes that the Impact Fund application lacks any determinative standards for socioeconomic status or other indicators that might qualify a household or community.
“What happens is, somebody reads about us. They hear about us,” Bol says. “And likely, who hears about us is a great champion of books and literacy. They put one in their neighborhood. They put one out their front door. Their neighbors put one in. That has a tendency to be a higher-echelon neighborhood.”
He adds, “But then what happens in the community is they say, ‘Hey, you know what? Where they really need those libraries is down at the laundromat, or down at the trailer park, or in this high-needs neighborhood.’ And so the community starts spreading them.”
In the paper, Hale and Schmidt describe Little Free Libraries as “neoliberal politics at street level.”
“It’s very important to consider the role that private property plays, in terms of who is able to build one, whose values are represented in it, and what kind of effect does this have on those who either drive by it, walk by it, see it in front of a community center or school, or even seeing it on Instagram,” Hale says. “What does it mean that this is the way in which ‘library services’ are being presented to community members?”
The journal article names one place where Little Free Library exchanges may have grown at the expense of the public library system. In September 2014, the mayor of tiny Vinton, Texas, announced plans to install five Little Free Library book-stops across town—while implementing a $50 fee for access to the El Paso Public Library system to balance state-imposed budget cuts. Schmidt can name at least one alternative to Little Public Libraries that supplements public-library branches: the “Twig” mobile book-stops of the Appalachian Regional Library System in northwest North Carolina. If Watauga County were to refer to (unlicensed) Twigs as Little Free Libraries, they could run afoul of Little Free Library's registered trademark—which the organization does enforce through litigation. “I used to call the ones who used our name ‘rogues,’” Bol says. “My wife would say, ‘Oh, Todd, don’t be so crabby.’”
Little Free Library’s methods don’t bother all (or even most) librarians. Bol rattles off a list of honors that librarians have bestowed on Little Free Library, including Library Journal’s Movers and Shakers Award (2013), the National Book Foundation’s Innovations in Reading Prize (2013), and a Library of Congress Best Practices Award (2015), plus the praise of super-librarian Nancy Pearl and The View host Whoopi Goldberg. “Our biggest fans are librarians and teachers,” Bol says.
The case against Little Free Library is not necessarily a case against little free libraries. “I wouldn’t go down hard and say that Little Free Libraries harm public libraries,” Schmidt says—although she and Hale expressed lasting anxiety over the library budget attacks waged by former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his austerity agenda. Both librarians are eager to acknowledge places where Little Free Libraries are put to good use by public-library systems. They mention Winnipeg, where librarians give book-exchange stewards in marginalized neighborhoods first dibs (and free access) to the system’s friends-of-the-library book sales. “I don't think we can definitively say that they [don’t] reduce inequality,” Schmidt says. “I just don’t think they can say they reduce inequality, either.”
If the biggest knock against Little Free Library is that it represents the usurpation of public service by a brand serving vainglorious homeowners—well, that’s still kind of a big knock. Bol would like to remind critics that Little Free Library is hardly Big Little Free Library: The Midwestern nonprofit employs 14 people.
But if the best takeaway from a close investigation of Little Free Library is that the organization could work better or smarter (which is not necessarily Schmidt and Hale’s conclusion), then that is an optimistic case. In just 6 years, the organization has emerged as a recognizable new element of the urban landscape—or at least certain landscapes. Now that all those boxes are out there, Little Free Library could really do something to activate and extend their network.
Or maybe it doesn’t matter? A check of the Little Free Library closest to my neighborhood reveals Commercial and Debtor–Creditor Law: Selected Statutes (1995 edition) and Basic Plumbing Code (1978), leftovers from professionals who practiced the magic of tidying up by dumping their textbooks into the nearest receptacle marked “FREE.” Nobody finds Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad in a Little Free Library—much less Wi-Fi, college counseling, or jobs services. A well-funded library system has little to fear.
Maybe the solution is to fight for library services in underserved neighborhoods and expect less from Amazon-inclined households in the first place. Radical librarians have other complaints about Little Free Library: the colonialism implied in sending cast-off books around the world, the eyebrow-raising suggestion in Little Free Library’s literature that “stewards” not seed their exchanges with political or religious texts.
Some of their complaints might fall to the wayside if public support for library services and innovation were stronger, especially in marginalized communities. If book deserts weren’t a thing, then Little Free Library would have no claim over them. Librarians can do more and better with books than homeowners can: Little Free Library acknowledges this much. And book exchanges aren’t the issue, of course—the branding of them is. In any case, the fight for public libraries is bound to play out in city council hearings, not front yards.
“I acknowledge that we can seem like a couple of librarians touting sour grapes by crapping all over this movement that so many people love,” Schmidt says. “We did try to come at this in a constructive manner. We maintain that you don’t really need the branding of Little Free Libraries. If anything, I think there’s a missed opportunity for public libraries to put their own branding on these things.”
*CORRECTION: This post originally indicated that both front-yard boxes on the Toronto street pictured were Little Free Library exchanges. In fact, the box on the left is a Street Gallery Project, a mini-forum for art. The post has been corrected.
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