A Little Rant on Little Free Libraries (aka probably an unpopular post)

Update to my post – 16 July 2014

Within a two mile radius of my little corner of Brookfield, Wisconsin there are four Little Free Libraries. I like the concept: People sharing books. People creating a collection. People encouraging reading. Targeting under-served areas/people. Those are good things. But it’s not a library. And I feel guilty and elitist for saying it. I mean, how could you not love this?

little free libraries. A Creative Commons-licensed photo via Flickr user davidsilver: https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidsilver/11783413894/

little free libraries. A Creative Commons-licensed photo via Flickr user davidsilver: https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidsilver/11783413894/

There are, of course, benefits to the little free libraries movement. Lane Wilkinson discusses this in his What can we learn from DIY libraries post and Tara Murray writes about it in her post, Truly DIY Libraries.

Do I feel like a little free library is seriously encroaching on a “real” library’s mission and objectives? No.

But here’s what I do worry about: the general public’s perception and the lumping together of little free libraries and actual “real” public libraries.

“Hey look, any volunteer can create a library!”

“Why do we need trained professionals when an 17-year old Eagle Scout has put together such a nice library?”

“Why do we need our tax money to go to something that can be done for FREE?”

“With these Little Free Libraries, we can just cut grants to libraries and use that money elsewhere.” (oh wait, that’s already being proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan.)

A library is not a wooden box. Above all, a library is:

  • a place both physical and virtual
  • a place to get help
  • a place to get information
  • a place to collaborate
  • a place to learn
  • a place to socialize

A handcrafted box of books – no matter how lovely (and many are!) – is not a library. It’s an open bookdrop. A library is more than just that.

48 thoughts on “A Little Rant on Little Free Libraries (aka probably an unpopular post)

  1. OMG – so this. Random collection of books no one else wants or can sell is NOT a library. AT ALL. These drive me mad.

  2. You make some interesting and valid points. I fell in love with the concept as a way of recycling unused books. Hopefully, people will realize, that while most library services are “free” to the library patron, you cannot run a library without funding. Hopefully people will also realize, that while serving a useful purpose, Little Libraries are not (as you have said) a library and all that that implies. I have always believed that a library is not just the building that contains it, but (more importantly) the people who work there, the sum total of their knowledge and ability to help those who need it.

  3. I agree. Libraries are already threatened and these are just more nails in the coffin. Perhaps libraries can create a mobile unit for people that qualify. (people unable to attend public libraries on their own.

    • Another thing that some libraries have is an outreach program that delivers to homebound patrons and sometimes that includes baby-sitters or daycares as well. There are even some agreements with libraries for things like halfway house type places. It’d be something to talk to your local library about.

  4. I think it’s a mistake to assume that all LFLs are filled with “books nobody wants” or “random books.” I know a few groups/individuals with LFLs and many of them do some curation of the items. One couple I know has even responded to requests for books by buying themselves and adding them to their LFL.

    If we’re concerned that the public is confusing LFLs with “real” libraries, then maybe the problem isn’t LFL operators, but the relationship (or lack thereof) the library has with its patrons. In other words, before we blame LFLs for our problems, maybe a mirror is in order.

    • That is part of the problem, one couple – somewhere. Anecdotes and volunteers that may or may not show up. There is absolutely no sustainability in that, or oversight. Publicly funded libraries provide guaranteed access to information services (including kids programs) that a box of discarded paperbacks can never do. Libraries do have a “real” relationship with their patrons – most of the time it is a lack of (budget/time) for marketing that fails to get the word out on the job being done and the services provided. Meanwhile the corporate papers will publish another glowing article on “hey random books!”.

  5. Reblogged this on Beyond the Shush and commented:
    Absolutely. These little “libraries” can no more substitute real library services than your local book club. It is sad — to a Samuel Beckett level of absurdism — that such things could ever pose a legitimate “threat” to the funding of actual community libraries!

  6. Pingback: A Little Rant on Little Free Libraries (aka pro...

  7. I don’t think LFLs are legitimate libraries either, but I think that unless libraries realize that they have to change with the times and a anticipate the public’s needs, it could be an issue in the future.

  8. I like the concept, especially for really rural areas not served reliably by bookmobiles. Having said that, I suspect that once again, I will be explaining why a library differs from a collection of books. But that’s ok…I’ve got it down to an art form after almost 40 years…..

  9. I completely agree with you about what people could think about public libraries with the creation of the little free libraries although it is the cutest initiative ever. This project also exists in New Orleans, Louisiana, and I think it really encourages teens and children to read, and a lot of people still go to public libraries because they indeed represent a place of reunion for the people in the community. Do not loose your faith on humanity, people might surprise you:)

  10. Doesn’t contrasting these book boxes with libraries slightly gloss over the huge differences between libraries that already exist? The small local library round the corner from me is a very different creature from the huge academic libraries I went to at university, or even the big central library in the city. Its atmosphere, staff and access to information are different, in scale if nothing else. I realise that these LFLs are run in a completely different way, I just wonder if grouping all other libraries together does them just as much disservice.

  11. The concern seems to be with the use of “libraries” in the name rather than with the concept of creating a spot where a neighborhood can share a few books. What if these were called Book Stops (like bus stops) or Bitty Book Stations? Could we enthusiastically support them as we would other efforts to encourage reading and book sharing?

    • Bingo. These are a community bookshelf & not an entity that provides free access to public computers & the Internet, magazines, books, music & movies in numerous formats, the assistance of professional researchers, access to resources on the “Deep Web,” etc, etc.

  12. I find this discussion very interesting as it parallels one going on at my school. Our district’s middle schools have adopted the readers’ workshop model for literature classes. Classroom libraries have been created with district funds, book drives, teacher purchases, department monies, and withdrawn school library books over the past three years.

    This year, the school library media specialists’ jobs were drastically changed, as we are assigned to teach 4 intervention classes and open the libraries for only 2 periods per day. We have no paraprofessionals. In some schools teachers have learned how to check out books to students but as a whole school library use has decreased. At the start of the year my budget was $0, but I received $1000 for new books in December.

    A few teachers maintain that administration now finds school libraries unnecessary because of classroom libraries–students need only look there to find all the books they need. The teachers, however, not only know that a school library’s scope and currency is so much greater than classroom libraries, but they also recognize the school library media specialists’ collection development expertise. And they also know that in the past we have done so much more than just provide books–that we have been information literacy specialists and co-teachers.

    It is certainly an interesting take on how and why the powers-that-be might justify reduction in library services.

  13. Pingback: Slight Difference | Jason Wilkins

  14. The ship has sailed when it comes to claiming (reclaiming?) the word “library”. People with giant houses have libraries, people refer to their bookshelf at home as their library, and iTunes and other retail sites use the term to describe collections of music and media.

    Now, if you want to make the argument between using a little l or a big L when it comes to what a library means, you have a valid point. Otherwise, this is hyperbole akin to confusing a neighborhood pickup game of basketball with the NBA.

    • Yes but you’re referring to personal libraries versus community “Libraries.” I’m not saying we try to claim/reclaim the term “library” (that’s as pointless to get society to stop saying Photoshopped or Googled) but I am saying that the difference between community bookshelf/library and Library is a perfect example of Libraries’ historically “less than satisfactory” marketing of themselves.

    • It’s not totally about the use of the word “library.” I think using the word library is, in many ways, problematic given what a library is supposed to provide and represent. And I do mean public/community libraries, not personal libraries. Libraries are supposed to provide information to all people but LFLs are generally placed in areas where people want them and can afford to build them. This means that those who have access to them already love to read and already have access to their local library (and potentially have a personal library of their own).

      The problem is also with where they’re placed and who has access to them. What about people living in rural areas who may not have public libraries in their communities? Do we have any hard research on how many LFLs are in rural communities?
      What about low-income and homeless populations? In the area where I live, all LFLs are in areas of wealth or higher income. This is what makes LFLs problematic. I truly believe that they’re inherently elitist because they are a luxury. “Oh, the library has closed for the day? That’s alright, we can go to our 5 local Little Free Libraries!”

      Little Free Libraries have so much potential to help a lot of people, but right now they are a fad and comfort for a lot of people who don’t necessarily need them. And I’m certainly not saying that’s a bad thing. I have taken and left books in LFLs around my area, but for as much as sarah9188 says that public libraries need to change with the times, LFLs need to do the same.

  15. We don’t own the word “library” or “librarian”, though we can certainly work hard to elevate it to a purpose for which we believe is worthwhile and that which contributes to our communities and society at large. But if you think that position is so tenuous as to be undermined by bird boxes, then your library is probably underperforming in several very fundamental ways.

  16. As a steward of a LFL for my neighborhood, I curate the collection I offer carefully. We have a lot of donations during the summer so I weed often. I have also purchased used books on occasion as well to round out the collection. Beyond print material, our LFL has shared CDs, DVDs, sidewalk chalk, seeds, etc. We also have a LIbraryBox donated to the library by a colleague that offers content as well. More of my thoughts here:


  17. Usually, I respond on Twitter, Twitter does not enough space for this. I understand your rant, Joe and in many ways I agree. But the existance of LFLs means that there is a population out there that libraries are not reaching. It could be because the library does not have what that population is looking for… or maybe the population can’t get to the library.
    Or maybe the population served by the LFL does not know what the library has to offer.
    Libraries need to work with LFLs and not against them. Libraries need to reach out. Reatreating into our own buildings does us no good. If a library serving a large geographic area doesn’t have the means to run a book mobile or open a branch, any LFLs that pop up are valuable. “We” shouldn’t blame the car-less people or shut-ins for not using a real library. Nor should we blame someone doing what is a good deed.

    I’m barely into my 30s but I’m accutely aware of librarian snobbery. My library is not better than an LFL. Better equipped yes. But better all around? No.

    • Thank you for this comment and your awareness of people who can’t get to the library because they’re car-less or disabled. I’ve recently been looking into putting up a Little Free Library in my yard. I spent several wonderful years working as a page at the medium-small public library in my home town, and then later, splitting my time between the front circulation desk and assisting the children’s librarians. It was the most wonderful job I could dream of, and the only reason I left was because I met my dream guy. Now that I’m married, I’ve left everything and everyone I knew and moved halfway across the country to a semi-rural cul-de-sac in the Southern states. It’s been two years and my health has deteriorated to the point where I can’t drive and even have trouble just walking around. Even more than missing the blissful hours at the library, I miss having friends in the community with whom I can share ideas and my love of books. Of course an LFL doesn’t mean or achieve the same thing as a public library, but at least in my case, I think it might encourage me to endure the pain in order to get out of the house a little more. Hopefully it will give folks around here something to talk about and bond over. In a best case scenario, maybe it’ll even teach the neighborhood kids to love books and give me an opportunity to tell them what awesome things they can find at the *real* library. 😉

  18. An academic librarian working for me, an academic librarian, collected donations to buy a “Little Free Library” as a memorial tribute for my father, an avid reader with a personal library collection and over 130 titles on his Kindle at the time of his death. He was also a patron of our library. My father claimed to have read every book on the shelf of our high school library and had to ask his librarian to purchase more books (in the 1950’s) for our K-12 central school in Western New York State. The librarian checked his library card…she ordered more books. As the steward of my father’s LF Memorial L, I will honor his memory and love of reading by promoting and maintaining a small collection of books. I will continue to support our local public library book sale annually with the overflowing donations. I’m confident the message of sharing and advocating reading will not be diminished at our underfunded public library.

  19. nearly all the ones that i’ve been to ARE 3/4 to entirely full of junk that nobody wants. it’s more of a feel good to put your junk in a ‘free library’ under the dillusion that someone else wants it than it is to put it in your recycle bin. but for these ‘book exchange boxes’ to work, now and then, somebody has to edit out the crap and make room for stuff people might actually want. they are NOT libraries in any sense of the word. a library is where you can go borrow WHAT YOU WANT and have someone help figure out exactly what that might be and borrow it from far away if need be, these are ‘used book exchanges’.

  20. I hope anyone who’s ever used a public library knows it isn’t just about books. So many awesome programs are offered at libraries to help a variety of people. I feel anyone who thinks these makeshift wooden box libraries can take the place of a public library has obviously never been to one before.

  21. I think you make some really good points. I’m a very big fan of libraries myself and have always found them very useful. Espescially when I was at my poorest, I would rent dvd’s from the library instead of getting cable and appreciated the fact that they had foreign language movies, so that I could keep up on my French. It was also a nice place to go and get out of the house, for free, and I also really appreciate the peace and quiet.
    Education is invaluable and libraries are an integral part of that.

  22. Everyone sure seems quick to refer to this concept as a replacement for libraries. Why not use this as a supplement to the current library system, instead of alienating it as some “end of civilization as we know it”

  23. Pingback: The Little Free Library Comes to Humber College in Etobicoke | Book Jacket Letters

  24. I think you are linking actions and reactions that aren’t really linked. Paul Ryan will look to privatize many parts of our government. Little free libraries don’t play into his thinking, that I could find. You put your quote next to his name but the link you gave says nothing about little free libraries. Can you show a quote of his?

  25. Why pick sides? Make a little notecard that says: “Can’t find what you want/these books don’t appeal/rather read on your [insert favorite device]? [My town] Public Library has a location nearby (or download their ebooks from anywhere). Here’s the street address and url.” Put a bird on it or glitter it up with fancy hipster font, stick it to the inside wall, congratulate yourself on promoting reading AND real libraries, and get on with your life.

    • Perfect! My husband and I are in the process of building a LFL and hope to have it up by the end of the month. I will put in a note like you’ve worded here, and enjoy the opportunity to share some books, a love of reading, and meet a few new neighbors. Thanks 🙂

  26. I haven’t worked in a library since 2006. Since then, it’s doc. e-records management.

    So,….the term library is used so loosely and for people’s personal collections also. I think the public might view these little free libraries as discards and books not a lot of people would be chasing after.

    What was interesting where I am, is a year ago, we had huge damaging river flood which ended up evacuating over 100,000 residents (including self). The main branch of the library system for its basement, was flooded. As part of fundraiser, the library asked for book donations…but only donated for 2 days.

    they received over 20,000 books. Don’t know how many were um..duds. But a clear indicator that people might want less books and are digitally reading more. (Let’s hope that…it is beyond tweets.)

    • Or maybe people responded to a need and donated books that they love. Without providing actual data on where the books came from, and the reason that they were donated, there is “no clear indicator” that people want fewer books in their lives. Another interpretation might be that donating 20,000 books in two days is an indication of just how people value books. I give to the causes that are important to me.

  27. I agree that LFL’s are not real libraries. I’m not one to get into politics, but these “libraries” should not take away from the funding and grants that public and school libraries need. As you said, a library is much more than just a collection of books–it is a depository of knowledge. Downgrading support and funding for libraries will also be contributing to the downfall of human knowledge. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

  28. It seems unlikely to me that people will confuse Little Free Libraries with Public Libraries. Using that logic, perhaps we should encourage bookstores and printing manufacturers to ban the sale of “from the library of” bookplates and stamps for fear that they might confuse the public.

    I love the Little Free Library movement, and hope to sponsor a few of my own. Building a sense of community over the joys of shared readings seems like a good thing to me. I refer to the books in my home as my library.

    I believe that Public Libraries are important, and threatened, but not by Little Free Libraries.

  29. What about using a LFL at a school as a means of library outreach to students who won’t/don’t use the school library? I was thinking that it might be a useful tool to place LFLs on the campus, make sure they were stocked with quality lit and see if the LFL could be a gateway to increase regular library use. What do you think? Would it be a mistake to put a LFL on a school campus with a regular functioning library? Would it detract from the main library? Would it just be a way of augmenting service and reaching out to students?

    • I thought about putting a LFL at my school. My major concern is that, if I were to put one in an accessible at all hours location, I would lose control over the books placed in the Library. This is an issue since I work at an elementary school. If it were only open during school hours, I think it would be a great idea. I don’t think we need to worry about it detracting from the school library. The books students most like to read may not make the limited school budget that has an eye on purchasing books to support their curriculum, Common Core, or Accelerated Reader needs.

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