KDL offers free mini libraries throughout the community to reach readers where they are

Throughout this Literacy Matters series, we’ve shed light on many of Kent District Library (KDL)’s often overlooked community services. Services that extend far beyond a simple book on a shelf, including their vinyl record collection, Bookmobile, internet hot spots and early-stage literacy programs, but for this segment, we’re returning to the foundational idea of books on shelves. This time, however, accessing these free resources won’t even require a library card. In partnership with local organizations, patrons and community residents, KDL offers anyone the chance to take a book or leave a book at the KDL Free Libraries. These mini-library projects are scattered all over Kent County, housed with around 40 books each, ranging from youth to teen and adult materials. 

Sara Proaño, KDL community engagement manager, says the Little Free Library project falls under the sustainability category, the third pillar of KDL’s 2021-2023 Strategic Plan.  According to Proaño, a library book’s life cycle is typically eight years of travel between multiple branches. The first stage is the purchase — where, how and what KDL buys in order to increase community representation within the collection. The second stage is cataloging, followed by placement, which is based on the expressed needs and interests of communities served. The fourth stage is shelf life. The Little Free Library floating collection is formed and adapts to the changing community demand. The fifth stage is weeding materials, making sure books are in good or reasonable condition for borrowers. Finally, after being weeded, materials are analyzed to see which sustainability category they can fall into — repurpose, recycle, reuse or disposal.

“We have four paths that reading material can take; one is reuse. Some of those materials that are weeded out are given to the Friends of the Library, who resells them and generates some profit that goes to their programs and to support the library,” Proaño says. “Other materials are recycled. There are also materials that are repurposed and that is the Little Free Library project. In this case, we use the materials, we discard them from the collection, but we give access to Little Free Library owners and we create partnerships in places that are strategic, in order to reach readers anywhere they are,” she says. 

If none of these are suitable options, the Library will look at their fourth option. “The fourth path is discard,” Proaño says. “There are some books that cannot go to recycling, and in that case, we try to discard them in a responsible way.”

Although not officially connected with the worldwide nonprofit, the Little Free Library nonprofit, KDL does provide materials for its partnerships with local neighborhood KDL free libraries, as well as local businesses and landmarks offering a free library basket or shelf. 

“Owners can take from our collection and restock their Libraries in their neighborhoods,” Proaño says. “We have a couple people that come every two weeks or every month, and take boxes of books with them, according to their interest.”

Partnerships begin in two ways, sometimes local residents inquire with the Library about obtaining books for their Little Free Libraries in their neighborhoods, made possible by the larger nonprofit. Other times, it’s KDL’s outreach with schools, businesses, community centers, the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, public transportation including The Rapid and more.

“Sometimes, we take initiative, like in the case of the Airport, The Rapid, and a foster care home,” Proaño says. “Those are places that we have identified that there’s a huge need and opportunity, so we took the initiative and established those relationships and continue to invest in the relationship with the organization. We don’t like to do these alone; it has to be always a partnership with somebody else who is willing to do it.”

The Gerald R. Ford International Airport partnership Little Free Library shelves in Terminal A and B are made possible by Experience GR volunteers who maintain the materials. At the start of the project, though, KDL staff attempted to maintain materials, making frequent trips from Comstock Park to the Airport. 

“That’s why it has to be in partnership,” Proaño says. “We cannot be there all the time. It has to be with a willing partner that is committed. It’s often an evolution. With the Airport partnership, my staff [and I] had special TSA clearance to go inside the airport and switch those books, maintaining the Library. Quickly, we realized that was a huge commitment for us because it takes a lot of time. We look for ways in which we can continue to do this but lower the cost from our side of things. That’s how we found Experience GR — their staff and volunteers are already TSA-cleared. Now what we do is send a delivery system every week, and they’re the ones maintaining it.”

Developing these relationships and partnerships within the community requires flexibility, constant adjustments and shifts based on the community needs and changing circumstances. Given each location has varying customers, patrons and needs, curating or maintaining materials for places like the free baskets on 13 of The Rapid buses differs from handpicking selections for individual businesses. Hearing feedback, both positive and negative, is most helpful to KDL staff in regards to their Free Libraries. Proaño frequently receives responses regarding a KDL free library partnership with Reflections Salons & Suites, owned by entrepreneur Jerry White. 

“In the waiting area, we have a Free Library there, and that one is customized for the African American community with African American authors, subjects and representations,” Proaño says. “Reaction is engagement. I love that the community owns it and they feel like, ‘Hey, this is mine. I have a say in it. When I say something, things change.’ I love that part of this service.”

This service reflects how your local library truly functions as a community resource center, providing residents with connections to many programs that can positively impact their lives. Although KDL’s goal is for everyone to have a library card, they realize many families are outside of the District, might have other library cards in various systems or other extenuating circumstances. “We want to make materials available for everyone. We want people to see the Library not only as a place where you come and read, but as a place where you get information about health, food from Feeding America West Michigan, the kind of place where everybody is welcome,” Proaño says. “The Library is a place where you can not only get books, but you can print materials, search for a job, explore new careers, get something to eat, or get free books to take to your neighborhood.”

Part of the mentality behind the KDL Free Libraries also allows visitors to take or leave a book. Of course, inviting patrons to take or leave a book means the selection of many KDL Free Libraries is often a surprise. You might arrive at an empty box or an overfull Library. Here’s where the need for volunteers comes in. Volunteers can signup on the volunteer section on the KDL website to assist in sorting and processing materials on various days at branches. Interested organizations who want more information on obtaining books for a Free Library can contact [email protected]

Photos by Kristina Bird, Bird + Bird Studio

Literacy Matters is a series focused on the importance of knowledge, community resources seeking to remove barriers to access, and the value of our library systems to society. Literacy Matters is supported by Kent District Library. 

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]