How Little Free Libraries Plant Reading in Book Deserts

You’re walking around a new neighborhood and you see it: a tiny house filled with books. It’s adorable. You’re used to seeing old couches or not-quite-right IKEA furniture out on the street, but could these books really be for the taking?

Little Free Libraries are neighborhood book exchanges. What started in 2009 has spread internationally to about 25,000 sites all over the world. Take a look at this map of registered locations—there’s probably one near you. For National Library Week, we interviewed Kris Huson, Director of Marketing and Communications at Little Free Library about how the concept took off, cultivating a community of book lovers, and the role these little libraries play in an ecosystem of reading and learning.

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role in at Little Free Library.

I am an Army veteran, mom, vintage dress collector and a seasoned cause-related marketer and fundraiser for child-focused nonprofits. At Little Free Library, I am the Director of Marketing and Communications and I lead those efforts as well as fundraising and development.

2. How did this organization come to be, and what do you think are the main reasons that the members of your sizeable community start a Little Free Library?

Some nonprofits happen intentionally, and some begin because forces outside can’t be ignored. Little Free Library is the latter. When people became enamored with the very first Little Free Library book exchange that our creator put in his front yard, he knew his idea was a special one. The concept soon took off, a social enterprise nonprofit was formed, and in five short years, passionate stewards are now curating 25,000 Little Free Library book exchanges in 70 countries around the world. Our stewards aim to strengthen their communities through a shared passion of books, and with nearly 40 million free books having exchanged hands, they are doing just that. One Little Free Library has grown into a global literacy grassroots movement.

Little Free Library

3. What is a book desert, and what do Little Free Libraries have to do with it?

Like a food desert—an area where fresh, nutritious foods are difficult to find or afford—a book desert is a place where books are difficult to access. There are technology, transportation, time, and financial barriers that prevent millions from reading books. At Little Free Library, we do not want anyone to have to choose from feeding his/her body and feeding his/her mind. Our boxes full of free books, located right down the block or right down the road, are portals to the joys of reading.

4. Where are the majority of book deserts located?

Impoverished and rural areas are often book deserts. In Los Angeles, out of more than 1,300 district schools only 100 have a librarian. In Philadelphia, only 5% of schools have a librarian. Many of these schools don’t even have a supply of books that kids can take home to read at their leisure. Kids need books. For all that’s invested in getting kids to perform at their grade level, if they don’t even have books, we have to make changes.

Before I started working at Little Free Library, I had no idea that many schools didn’t have robust libraries. I spent so many days inside the school library, I can still recall how they were laid out and where the nonfiction and fiction sections were. I cannot imagine children in our seemingly first-world country not having books are their disposal. It’s inexcusable. We can do better. A Little Free Library book exchange is a simple, doable idea with a big potential impact. We say at Little Free Library, “We all do better when we all read better,” and this is a big reason we are here.

5. Can you tell me about a time when a Little Free Library helped supply a book desert?

There are so many examples of us plugging book deserts with book exchanges around the world in Honduras, Mongolia, Philippines, Sudan, Ghana and Nigeria. In some places we’ve installed them where people have never had the opportunity to even hold a book.

Some of these stories are included in our new release, The Little Free Library Book. Currently, we are working with a teacher who reached out to me from a school in Seattle where 90% of students qualify for reduced lunches and where bilingual reading materials are needed. When I told the teacher that we will help her students out by sending her a library full of bilingual books, she said her students cheered with joy. The students lovingly decorated their Little Free Library book exchange and signed their names and wrote the names of their favorite books on the side of it. It was planted out in front of the school before spring break so the kids can read during their time away from school.

Little Free Library

6. How do you see the relationship between LFLs and municipal libraries?

Anywhere the love of reading can be fostered is good for society, be it a public library, a bookstore or a Little Free Library. We have received an award for innovation from the American Library Association and we work with many library systems who see us as an extension of their services. They are placing Little Free Libraries in areas further away from their locations as satellites that are open 24/7. Many librarians are stewards of Little Free Libraries—who better to curate books for their neighbors?

My personal experience with Minneapolis, the largest city in our area, that has nearly more Little Free Libraries than anywhere else (there are more than 1,000), the public libraries and bookstores have, local publishers, literarati, authors, writers, poets, artists, literacy organizations and institutes of education have all embraced our movement and helped propel it to where it is today. This is what a culture of reading looks like. And, viola, Minneapolis, is the #1 most literate city in the US now. Its neighbor, St. Paul, also a hub of Little Free Libraries, is #4. Seattle, which added more Little Free Libraries than any other city last year, is #3 on the list.

7. How can our readers help address the problem of book deserts?

There are several ways that come to mind:

  • Advocacy. Your voice matters. Help us introduce the concept of book deserts to those whom you know cannot imagine their lives without books. Awareness building is important to bolstering the next step.
  • Action. There are tools out there, we just need to take responsibility and act. Illiteracy is a societal problem that contributes to poverty, poor health, violence and crime. Is this a societal problem we can afford to ignore?

Little Free Library has tools. We aim to plant Little Free Libraries in as many book deserts as we can, and boost our other efforts that build neighborhood-level literacy efforts through a Kickstarter campaign that launches on April 22. We could certainly use the public support in this endeavor. Since all of our operations and administrative costs are covered by the sale of our book exchanges and other products, all donations made to Little Free Library go straight to our programming. Donate to the campaign.

Lead image courtesy of @christies_chronicle. Other images courtesy of Little Free Library.

Kathryn Jaller

Kathryn Jaller

Previous Associate Director of online strategy at Chronicle Books and art/craft/cat lady. You can follow her at @kholler.
Kathryn Jaller

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