The first time I saw a Little Free Library was in a park in Florida, and I was charmed by the take-one-leave-one book exchange. I watched, uncritically, as the concept launched and copyrighted in 2009 grew in popularity. A couple years ago for Mother's Day, my family surprised and delighted me with my own Little Free Library. We installed the Little Free Library at our neighborhood community garden. It's just a few blocks from our house, near an elementary school and gets much more foot traffic than our house. Seeing it full of books, watching titles come and go, when I take the kids to school makes me happy.
I rolled my eyes when I read this cranky essay from a man who claimed his Little Free Library made him hate his neighbors. But I couldn't dismiss the more recent debate about whether Little Free Libraries are an equitable way to share books. Two Canadian librarians undertook research to see if their gut instincts — that Little Free Libraries were primarily in affluent areas, not necessarily "book deserts" — were right. They inventoried Little Free Libraries in Calgary and Toronto, and the data confirmed their suspicions. The Canadian librarians published their research and criticism in the Journal of Radical Librarianship. (Let's all pause to fully appreciate that the Journal of Radical Librarianship exists.) They make the case that Little Free Libraries not only fail to distribute books to people who need them most, but could damage actual libraries, which are, in fact, serving people at every socioeconomic level.
Now, it's just two cities, but when I thought about the Little Free Libraries I knew of, well, many would fit that data. That first Little Free Library I noticed? It was in a park in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the county. Even my own Little Free Library is in a part of town where housing prices are on the rise and the public library is less than a mile away.
I'm glad those Canadian librarians are raising questions about where Little Free Libraries go, and if they are the best way to share books. We all should be asking questions about equity. We all should support our libraries. And we need to be honest with ourselves about why we're putting up a Little Free Library. Are we putting it some place that actually needs better access to books? Or are we putting it up as a way to trade books with neighbors? Are we building or nurturing a reading culture?
But I'm not ready to give up on Little Free Libraries — or at least book exchanges. In the case of my own Little Free Library, I think it's well-used and generally self-filling because it's near a school and in a public space. Also, the public library is less than a mile away but on the other side of a very busy thoroughfare, so the Little Free Library lets kids in the neighborhood browse books without braving traffic. I also like that if someone really loves a book, they can keep it. More generally, I've seen libraries — including my hometown library system — putting up Little Free Libraries as another way to reach people. From the earliest bookmobiles, libraries always have found ways to get books to people.
Little Free Libraries are just a brand. You don't need a Little Free Library to share books. There's a restaurant here in my town that has a shelf of books at the back that works just the same. When we bought our house and switched the utilities to our name, the kind Water Department clerk made sure my boys each took a book from the shelf in the hall. I love passing books to friends and neighbors.
Getting more books in the hands of more people is something I'll always support.