More than a box of books: Little Free Libraries provide a big dose of literacy and community

They may be small, but the Little Free Libraries that are increasingly popping up throughout Grand Rapids are doing big things when it comes to building literacy and community.
Little Free Libraries are taking over the nation, and Grand Rapids is no exception. Little boxes of books pop up in residential communities, in front yards of homes and churches, nestled in parks, built by families and individuals, all with the design to promote literacy and connect with neighbors. These boxes have no hitch, no late fees and no strings attached. Just a collection of books, taken and left, for anyone passing by. With more than 20 registered Little Free Libraries (LFLs) in the Grand Rapids area, locals are loving on literacy — and getting a big dose of community on the side.

Following the creation of the first Little Free Library in 2009, LFLs have consumed the nation and made the movement a worldwide mission. Here in Grand Rapids, these micro-libraries are taking the form of mini-houses and schools, and even a British telephone box and an F-22 Raptor. From Northview to Eastown, Baxter to East Grand Rapids and Ottawa Hills, Grand Rapids has embraced LFLs in a big way. While promoting literacy and connecting neighbors, LFLs also expose readers of all ages to new, unexpected titles.

Who could be better to host a local LFL than librarians themselves? Anjie Gleisner, branch manager of the KDL Gaines Township Library, is a proud co-owner of a little free library with her husband, Tim Gleisner, the archivist at the Grand Rapids Public Library. Tim Gleisner had first become aware of the libraries while living in Minneapolis, where LFLs became highly popular after the first of its kind was erected in 2009 in nearby Hudson, WI by LFL founder Todd Bol.

After Tim Gleisner discovered his neighbors' shared interest in a LFL through social media, the Gleisners organized a block party fundraiser (the official libraries range in price from $150 to close to $500 and it costs between $42 and $77 to register them). At the event, their neighbor, Steve Cok, volunteered the build the library, and that was that. A few months later, Cok revealed a library that was the exact replica of the Gleisners' Eastown home. He even finished of the project by borrowing a little of their house paint.

In the two years since, the Gleisners have stocked a variety of literature in their block-representing library. "We do a real mix," says Anjie Gleisner, who maintains about 30 to 40 books in the library at one time. With a variety of history, nonfiction, children's books, classics, and award-winners, the Gleisners see almost everything come and go to a diverse group of library patrons.

Anjie and Nate GleisnerWitnessing "everybody from all walks of life," including parents and children, retirees, and individuals of all ages, Anjie Gleisner notes that community members really do the work of maintaining the library.

"We really haven't had to do anything other than put books into it," she says. Though she does periodically vet the selection for higher quality works and books in good condition, the library is somewhat effortless.

No matter the books available or the weather—Tim Gleisner even noted a mother and daughter who donned snowshoes to walk to the library for a good snow-day read—the Gleisners welcome patrons to their library. In addition to promoting literacy and creating unity on their block of Benjamin Street, the Gleisners also enjoy bringing people together and connecting people in their wider community. "It's definitely a community-building thing," says Anjie Gleisner.

This idea of community is one that is promoted throughout the Little Free Library network, which includes tens of thousands of free libraries across the globe.

"Through Little Free Libraries, communities are strengthened, book deserts are eradicated, the sharing economy thrives and neighbors talk to each other more than ever," says Margret Aldrich, author of "The Little Free Library Book: Take a Book, Return a Book." "The best of them become the neighborhood watercooler—an informal meeting spot that acts as small social anchor in the community.”

It's this dual purpose of community and literacy that inspires Little Free Library, a registered nonprofit since May 2012, to fill neighborhoods across the world with these little conversation starters. "There are now 36,000 LFLs in all 50 states and 70 different countries," says Aldrich, who writes in her book that there are libraries in countries like the Ukraine, Honduras, Iceland, Pakistan, China, Italy, Ghana, Japan, India, Australia, the Netherlands, and Korea.

“They stand in big cities like New York and Los Angeles as well as in the smallest towns of Iowa and Idaho,” she writes. “They're planted in parks, cafes, and hospital waiting rooms, but mostly they are friendly beacons in our collective front yards."

Especially seeking to promote literacy for those without access to a public library, "the LFL organization is also working to place Little Free Libraries in the 11,000 small towns in America that don't have public libraries," she continues.

This aim at promoting literacy through LFLs has also taken hold of Marnie White, the librarian of Saint Thomas the Apostle Catholic School, a preschool through eighth grade institution near Wilcox Park. With a mission to provide even greater access to books—especially during the summer months when students no longer have daily, walkable access to a library—White keeps the carefully designed box fully stocked.

"Little Free Libraries can also help address community issues around literacy," writes Bol in the foreword of "The Little Free Library Book." "I am truly convinced Little Free Library stewards are the best people for this kind of work. They are the perfect concerned citizens, ready to pick up the charge, improve their neighborhoods, and ensure that all their neighbors read well and often."

With 20 to 30 titles in a library designed to replicate the school building, White tries "to keep it fresh" with weekly adjustments to a stock of mostly children's titles — the most popular of which, she notes, are chapter books for third through fifth graders, and board books for even younger readers.

In addition to introducing her students to new material, White notes that the real goal of this collection of books outside of the school's library is "making sure they always have something in their hands." This includes random donations to the library like flash cards and even a tea set. "It's never the same," laughs White.

To check out the Little Free Libraries in Grand Rapids, visit this handy-dandy map on the nonprofit's website. For a guide to the LFLs in our community, check out this week's article here.

Looking to join the movement? Visit Minneapolis for the Little Free Library Festival on Saturday, May 21.

Photography by Adam Bird
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