Children review book offerings at a Little Free Library in Mountlake Terrace, Wash., on their way home from school. (Photo courtesy of Little Free Library) 

When families walk into any bustling Los Angeles Police Department station to report a crime, they pass a brightly painted box full of children’s books. Kids poke through the collection and sneak in a fairy tale while their parents speak to officers working the front desk. The books offer a welcome distraction for children and a healthy buffer against further trauma. The precinct libraries are just one arm of the Kids, Community & Cops program run by Todd Bol and his nonprofit, Little Free Library (LFL).

Bol’s mom was a schoolteacher and loved putting books into children’s hands. In 2009, Bol built in her honor a box that resembled a miniature schoolhouse out of an old garage door in his Hudson, Wisconsin, front yard. He filled it with books he wanted to share with neighbors and hung a sign: “free books.” A year later, he held a garage sale. But instead of buying his old stuff, people took selfies next to his little library. So he built and gave away 30 more.

Today, more than 60,000 Little Free Libraries stand around the world, in all 50 states and in 80 countries. The organization estimates that people share 43.8 million books through LFLs each year and expects the number of libraries to reach 100,000 this year. Most sit in people’s front yards, just like Bol’s first miniature schoolhouse.

“The libraries took off because it made local heroes and because it brought people together,” Bol says. “People discover the Little Free Library and it makes neighbors feel good about themselves.” Each little library has a shingle on its tiny door that says, “Take a book—return a book.” The organization encourages volunteer librarians, called stewards, to pay $40 to register their libraries in the LFL network and to receive an engraved charter sign.

Essential to LFL’s philosophy is a lack of rules and restrictions. Stewards can buy or build and decorate their libraries to suit their fancy, they can curate their book collections any way they choose, and they can plug into the larger LFL community online. “It’s everybody’s canvas,” Bol says. “Everybody gets to use it the way they want in every neighborhood.”

LFL’s success in inspiring a love of reading and building community has earned it several honors, including the National Book Foundation’s Innovations in Reading Prize, Library Journal’s Movers & Shakers Award, the Library of Congress Literacy Award, and “Top-Rated Nonprofit” status by GreatNonprofits.

“Little Free Library offers an opportunity for students to have greater access to books in their homes and neighborhoods,” says Michael Todd, the national director of marketing and communications for Reading Partners, a national nonprofit that mobilizes community volunteers to work one-on-one with struggling readers. “The more opportunities students have to read and explore books, and the more awareness they have of the importance of literacy, the greater their chances for future success.”

Building A Network

Scrolling through photos of Little Free Libraries on Instagram feels like flipping the pages of a magical children’s book. “We love to share photos of unique Little Free Libraries from around the world and showcase the creativity of their stewards, who have made Little Libraries that look like everything from rocket ships and robots to tugboats, Victorian mansions, movie theaters, and more,” says Margret Aldrich, who works on LFL’s media and programming. She retweets and reposts photos that friends and fans share on their personal Twitter and Instagram accounts.

She also shares moving testimonials from individuals who have received no-cost LFLs through the organization’s Impact Library Program. In one post from Columbus, Ohio, Anya Trujillo reported that she hears gunshots at night and finds used shell casings sprinkled on the sidewalk. But she’s noticed a change since LFL donated a nearby book box. She sees neighbors stand around their Little Free Library and chat as they browse through books. “It’s an overall tool bringing the neighborhood together,” she says.

Articles about LFL pop up in newspapers and on blogs and radio shows about 40,000 times a year. But the picturesque libraries’ popularity actually may pose a challenge for the organization. “The clear risk of Little Free Library’s approach is that others can adopt the core concept without joining the community, which could over time dilute our strong identity,” says Jeremy Hillman, director of corporate communications for the World Bank Group and a Little Free Library board member. Still, the team chooses not to assert copyright over other, similar grassroots book-sharing communities. “As an organization that is passionate about spreading the values of literacy, community building, and creativity, we welcome this organic growth whilst we balance the need to maintain a viable national, and now global, presence,” Hillman says.

To help maintain its brand identity, the LFL team has worked to strengthen the value of membership for stewards who pay to register their libraries with the organization, Hillman says. Little Free Library now hosts book giveaways, free downloads, and other special offers on its private Facebook group, where stewards from all over can connect with each other. “It’s a perk for us to have such an easy communication channel with our stewards, too,” Aldrich says, “as we’re able to bounce ideas off of these folks who are often our most valuable advisors and champions.”

Stewards meet others online with whom they would otherwise never cross paths: a lower-income family in Cleveland, a well-off retiree in San Francisco, a school administrator in New Orleans, a police officer in Minneapolis, a community organizer in Italy. An active member of the Facebook group from Sudan named Malaz recently posted that she is establishing a thousand LFLs in her home country.

From Products to Partnerships

Unlike most nonprofits, LFL runs almost exclusively on earned income. The organization hires woodworkers in Minnesota and Wisconsin to handcraft high-quality, beautiful LFLs. Sales of these libraries, charter signs, and related products account for about 95 percent of annual revenue and fund a $2.6 million operating budget, supporting other LFL initiatives such as the Impact Library Program and Kids, Community & Cops.

The organization also receives occasional grants for specific projects. But with a staff of only 11, Bol says he’s struggled to find time to seek out funding and plans to hire consultants to help. Fielding proposals from philanthropists who reach out keeps him busy enough, he says.

One grant from the Hudson Hospital Foundation, however, has already helped launch a set of LFLs focused on health literacy in the Hudson, Wisconsin, school system. The partnership with the foundation and the local school district supports a set of physical libraries, a selection of books, and a set of health-focused Action Book Clubs modeled after LFL’s Action Book Club Program, which combines reading with community service.

Bol and Aldrich hope that such initiatives will help attract more donors and partners; ultimately, Bol wants 60 percent of the budget to come from earned income and 40 percent from donations. Boosting donations will be important as the nonprofit continues to expand its focus from distributing physical products to building partnerships and community programs, says LFL board member Margaret Bernstein.

Many of these partnerships and programs are already showing success. Los Angeles police report that since the launch of the Kids, Community & Cops program, many children who have visited an LFL in an LAPD station have joined the department’s free Cadet Program and Police Activities League, where officers mentor young people on issues ranging from health to finance to community service. Some parents also now volunteer at the stations. In December, the LAPD and LFL began stocking squad cars with books provided by local nonprofits that cops can give kids while patrolling.

“Our goal through youth programs is to expose children to opportunities that they would not have otherwise, based on their circumstances,” says LAPD Sergeant Heidi Stoecklein, who runs the department’s Community Safety Partnership Program in the Newton area. “The Little Free Library shares the same vision, and we are so thankful for their partnership to ensure children have access to books and are building positive relationships with the community and police officers.”

Girl Scouts have also teamed up with LFL and built more than 500 Little Libraries in their communities—an activity that now earns scouts a patch. Additionally, about 600 public libraries around the country use LFLs as catalysts for community outreach. In California, the Monterey County Public Library system has set up 29 mini branches in neighborhoods that are far from a public library. Obviously, LFLs cannot offer all the services that public libraries do, but they can complement them, Aldrich says.

Now LFL’s executive director, Todd Bol didn’t grow up a reader. He struggled with dyslexia, and spelling bees brought tears to his eyes. When he accepted the Women’s National Book Association Second Century Prize in front of a crowd in New York City last summer, he held up his second-grade report card. He had earned an “E” in spelling, and that E didn’t stand for “excellent.” “I didn’t come out at the end like a star, but I came out pretty well,” he says, laughing. “A Little Free Library can be a spark for a kid, one boy, one girl. We can encourage their parents and their neighborhood, and capture their wisdom and their creativeness. And it enriches all of us.”

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