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Tiny Libraries, Big Ideas

A design challenge asked architects, book enthusiasts, and doodlers to rethink the little free library.

Nicola Urban, Tolmezzo, Italy

Close your eyes and imagine something called “Book Cheese.” It’s not a block of cheddar parading as a paperback; it’s a design submission received by panelists judging a competition that challenges traditional library infrastructure. Who says it can’t be inspired by cheese?

In partnership with the Little Free Library Organization and the American Institute of Architects San Francisco, Chronicle Books issued a call to reimagine the library in all shapes, sizes, and forms. The judges were looking for designs that were equipped with motion-activated lights, tailored to both kids and grown-ups, and included a spot where people could tie their dog’s leash while browsing.

With 300 submissions from 40 countries, the panelists had a lot of concepts to choose from. “Book Cheese,” a submission from a team in Guangzhou City, China, did not win first place, but it was deemed “most unusual.” Not a huge surprise for a large metal arc with holes (and shelves) that looks a lot like a hunk of Swiss.

Yum! (Xi Tan, Qian Sun, Xiaojing Zhang, Yan Li/Guangzhou City, China)

First place honors went to Bartosz Bochnyski. Aptly named “Owlie,” the library is a 4-foot-tall tall owl that can store up to 40 books. Bonus point: The critter’s eyes double as LED lights for nighttime reading.

Made from eco-friendly and affordable materials, “Owlie” can store up to 40 books. (Bartosz Bochynski, FUTUMATA /London)

The Little Free Library organization traces its origins back to 2009. Since then, it’s spread around the world. The “take a book, leave a book” model aspires to make books more accessible—and free. Often, the libraries are simple wooden boxes, though they can get a little wackier: Check out this robot and a donut on stilts.

Designed around a wooden frame, you can sit on the bench with your pup. (Aleksandra Ostapiuk/Bristol, U.K.)
This mini free library has a shade canopy and chairs for kids. (Aoife Marnane/Limerick, Ireland

The entrants got creative. One imagined a library with spaces to park bikes; another played around with some small benches that could double as hooks for dog leashes.

With Little Free Libraries now in more than 50,000 neighborhoods across 70 countries, communities are experimenting with ways to promote literacy. Why not make the most of the library’s design, too?

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