Exploring the Little Free Library Phenomenon

Little Free Library at the Eudora Welty House in Jackson, Mississippi
This Little Free Library — located near the Eudora Welty House in the Belhaven Neighborhood of Jackson, Mississippi — is one of more than 100,000 worldwide. (©Chad Robertson, Adobe Stock)

Most do-it-yourselfers build, create and fix things for themselves, but some spend hours in the workshop to benefit others with a Little Free Library.

Little Free Library, a nonprofit organization, promotes literacy, creativity and community through its book exchanges that bear the same name.

The organization started in 2009 with one book exchange in Hudson, Wisconsin, but its reach has expanded across the globe. Today, 100,000-plus book exchanges are in more than 100 countries.

Little Free Library with a red roof and blue sides in the Garden District of New Orleans
This Little Free Library — located in the Uptown Garden District of New Orleans — works on the honor system. If you take a book, you must donate a book. (©Kristina Blokhin – stock.adobe.com)

About the Little Free Library’s Bookcase

The signature bookcase — resembling a small building — makes a Little Free Library instantly recognizable. It’s usually made of wood, mounted on a post and has a door with a window to protect books from the elements.

The Little Free Library’s website has building plans and installation tips, but the nonprofit doesn’t require bookcases to look a certain way. However, you must purchase a charter sign to use the trademarked Little Free Library name.

While the nonprofit doesn’t regulate the bookcases’ design or structure, national, regional and local laws apply. Always check area building codes and ordinances, along with homeowners association rules for permitting requirements.

Many of the libraries are 20 inches wide by 15 inches deep by 18 inches high, but some are bigger. Either way, each library should have high ceilings and deep shelves to hold oversized children’s books, according to the nonprofit’s website.

The bookcase works on the honor system. Anyone can take a book, and they don’t have to return it, but they should donate a book in its place. This ensures the library always contains titles to read.

Blue Little Free Library seen in a neighborhood common area in front of a wooden fence
Allison and Chuck Kelley’s Little Free Library in Fairhope, Alabama features carvings of their favorite quotes from books.(Courtesy of Allison Kelley)

Little Free Libraries Across America

People have different reasons for building a Little Free Library. They may live in a neighborhood and want to foster a sense of community with a common amenity. Or promote education, literacy and love of reading in ‘book deserts’ with few resources.

In the South, Allison Kelley wanted to share her love of books with neighbors, so she signed up for a Little Free Library in Fairhope, Alabama.

Her husband, Chuck, built the bookcase from 1-by-2 pieces of plywood. He added a plexiglass door on a piano hinge, along with a magnet to hold it shut.

The couple carved quotes from their favorite book series — Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings — on both sides of the structure. Then they stained the exterior, painted the inside and mounted the bookcase on a 4-by-4 post using fast-setting concrete.

White Little Free Library mounted on a wooden post in Sacramento, California
Allen Cook built this Little Free Library in Sacramento, California. His wife designed carvings inspired by “Beauty and the Beast.” (Courtesy of Allen Cook)

On the West Coast, Allen Cook saw a Facebook post seeking leads for someone who could build a Little Free Library. So, the Sacramento, California entrepreneur and handyman, and his wife, volunteered their services.

He built, installed and primed the library with exterior paint; she designed its carvings inspired by the animated film, “Beauty and the Beast.” And neighborhood stewards finished the painting.

Red Little Free Library with door closed in Rhode Island
This Little Free Library in Exeter, Rhode Island features the inspirational message, “Wish It. Dream It. Do It.”

On the East Coast, while taping an episode of our national TV show, we learned about the Lantern Lane Library in Exeter, Rhode Island. The inspirational message, “Wish It. Dream It. Do It.,” greets visitors who open the door on the red-and-green bookcase.

It turns out, that message has a deep significance.  

“Our library is in honor of my mother who passed away from Alzheimer’s in 2018 (a military wife, career nurse and book club aficionado),” the library’s Facebook page states. “Her tapestry of books was infused with titles from near and far. The one repetitive phrase (her mantra) from the start until the end of her illness was Wish It. Dream It. Do It.”

A Lasting Legacy

The nonprofit organization’s beginnings were similar to those of the Lantern Lane Library.

In 2009, Little Free Library’s founder, Todd Bol, fashioned a wooden container to look like a one-room schoolhouse, mounted it on a post on his lawn, and filled it with books to honor his late mother, a book lover and schoolteacher.

Bol died of pancreatic cancer in 2018 — but his legacy lives on.

The organization now has 26,000 volunteers, 15 employees and a board of directors. Its impact spans the world and includes partnerships with the Library of Congress, Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts, The Home Depot, Habitat for Humanity, AARP and 3M, among others.

Learn more about Little Free Libraries, and share your book exchange experiences in the comments!


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