POSTED: 03/26/2015 10:51:01 AM CDT
UPDATED: 03/27/2015 09:14:31 AM CDT
We see them everywhere. Little Free Libraries that look like miniature barns, chalets, birdhouses, British telephone booths and other fancifully decorated structures.
Inside are all kinds of books -- from romances to car repair -- that people can take without asking permission, checking out or purchasing. They are expected to replace the book with one of their own.
"Our position is that we are a global asset," said Todd Bol, creator of the organization whose motto is, "Take a book, return a book.
Bol, 59, is an amiable, talkative guy seated at a big table made of century-old barn wood in the Little Free Library office and workshops near Hudson, Wis., where his 14-person staff works in a one-story building that smells of freshly cut wood. Behind him is a wall of 200 tiles showing Little Libraries of Distinction from all over the world.
For Bol, who calls himself a social entrepreneur, Little Free Libraries is about more than exchanging books. He wants nothing less than to change society.
"We're bringing neighborhoods together through books, literacy and conversation, talking about common goals," he said. "The (political) right likes us and the left likes us. How do you say 'no' to reading? As a populace, we are upset we are getting pushed apart when we want to come together.That's what Little Free Libraries do."
Bol built what would become the first Little Library in 2009, and the organization officially was established as a Wisconsin nonprofit corporation in May 2012.
Now there are 25,000 registered Little Free Libraries in 50 states and 70 countries. That's why Little Free Library is hosting its first fundraiser Sunday, celebrating its five-year anniversary and launching the Big Little Campaign to raise money to double the program's impact and register 50,000 little libraries.
Aldrich explained why she wrote the book: "I've been a fan of Little Free Library for a long time. I've seen the magic in my front yard when people drop off a book and chat. The whole block feels friendlier."
Bol refers to folks who have Little Free Libraries in their yards as "stewards" and calls himself chief executive and first steward. He doesn't hide his emotions when he recalls a comment made by former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle when Little Free Library received the Wisconsin Reading Association's Literary Organization of the Year award for 2014.
The former governor told Bol: "Everything that's going on in the world today, in our government and our communities, that's not who we are. Little Free Library is more representative of what we are as Americans."
Bol, who says he has a form of dyslexia, never dreamed he'd be heading a global nonprofit that focuses on books.
His Little Library story begins in 2008, when he parted company with his partners in Global Scholarship Alliance, a business he founded that provided nursing scholarships. He was devastated by ending what he had supposed was his life's career.
After traveling across the country to clear his head at the urging of his wife, Susan, Bol decided to build an office in his garage. He used the 1920s garage door to make a little structure that looked like a schoolhouse to honor his mother, June, a teacher who had died 10 years earlier.
In fall of 2009, Bol set the schoolhouse outside and filled it with books, but he didn't realize its impact until spring when his family had a garage sale.
"The library was hit," he recalled. "I watched reactions of kids and grown-ups, and I knew we had something meaningful. It magically brought out the sweet side of humanity, the secret primal urge calling us to come together."
Bol teamed with Rick Brooks, at the time the University of Wisconsin-Madison outreach program manager in continuing studies, with a goal of building 2,510 Little Libraries. That was one more than the full-size brick libraries philanthropist Andrew Carnegie built across the country at the turn of the 20th century. Bol and Brooks hit their goal in August 2012, 18 months ahead of schedule.
NO MONEY AT FIRST
In the beginning, Bol and Brooks had no money. They built six Little Libraries on Bol's deck, using wood from an old barn. Neither had woodworking skills, so it took awhile. Thanks to a $1,000 grant from the Chicago Awesome Foundation, they were able to build six more, and the media began to pay attention.
After a story in the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper and a guest appearance on a popular Wisconsin public radio show, requests for Little Libraries came pouring in. (Bol estimates Little Free Library has been written about 11,000 times.)
The New York Times has called Little Free Libraries, or LFL, a global sensation, and the program has been featured on "NBC Nightly News," CNN and National Public Radio as well as appearing in the pages of Parade, Better Homes and Gardens and international fashion magazines. Gwen Briesemeister's documentary "A Small Wooden Box" can be seen on YouTube.
In 2014 alone, about 36 million free books were exchanged by Little Free Library visitors. In 2014, the nonprofit made $1.5 million, 96 percent of which was earned income of sales of little libraries and registrations by stewards of the libraries. The remaining 4 percent was from donations.
Little Free Library now supports four main programs:
-- Little Free Libraries for Small Towns brings LFLs to the 11,000 towns in the U.S. without public libraries.
-- Books Around the Block seeded 55 libraries throughout Minneapolis, leading to the establishment of 250 more by organizations, such as schools and Lions and Rotary clubs. The program also donated 60 Little Libraries to Chicago and 20 to Florida.
-- Friends through the Years is a partnership with the AARP Foundation, which donated $70,000 to encourage intergenerational connections through books, reducing the isolation of older adults.
-- Good Global Neighbors tries to put books into the hands of people everywhere.
Bol is excited about creating Libraries of Understanding for police precincts.
"There are 18,000 police departments in the U.S. through which Little Libraries can bring communities together," said Bol, whose grandfather was North St. Paul's police chief. Earlier this month, he presented a mock-up "check" showing 25 Little Libraries he donated to the police chief in Los Angeles.
These philanthropic initiatives are supported through Little Libraries Give It Forward Team Fund, which gathers donations. Funds also are raised through the sale of 22 different Little Libraries kits, which range from $175 to $350.
"People hear what we are doing, and they offer to help," Bol said, ticking off partnerships with General Mills, car dealer Rudy Luther, Books for Africa, Lutheran Social Services and Coffee House Press among others. National partners include the Library of Congress and First Book, which puts books in the hands of disadvantaged children.
There have been some glitches as Little Free Libraries sprang up in large and small towns. A few municipal governments said the structures violated zoning laws, but politicians don't want to come out against reading and solutions are found.
When that happened in Lincoln, Neb., when a Little Library was too close to the street, Bol donated a Little Library to the mayor so the mayor could show how much he loved the program.
For the "Little Free Library Book," Aldrich interviewed more than 70 Little Library stewards in the U.S. and other countries. Many people are using the Little Libraries for more than book sharing.
For instance, St. Paulite Melanie Peterson-Nafziger has a "lush and tangled garden" on the roof of her library and a community seed exchange in a salvaged drawer.
A recent college graduate in North Carolina used Kickstarter to raise money for a Little Library in Winston-Salem. Across the world in Qatar, a little boy and his father started a Little Library because the boy's friends kept asking to borrow books.
Some inmates at the Prairie du Chien Correctional Institute in Wisconsin build Little Libraries in their building-maintenance and construction class from used, donated or recycled materials.
'WE OWN THE NAME'
With the expansion of his organization, a growing concern for Bol is the churches and organizations selling their own structures as Little Free Libraries to raise money.
"I admit this makes me a little grumpy," he said. "These are well-meaning people, but they don't understand we own the name. It's a mixed blessing when you become a household word like Kleenex."
Bol's latest idea might be his most ambitious. He wants to change the way young people greet one another by introducing the phrase "Whatcha' readin'?"
The idea was born when Bol was having breakfast at Burbank Studios in California with Dave Finkel, producer of the "New Girl" TV show and a Little Library steward.
"We talked about the anti-intellectualism in this country and how nice it would be if we could get kids to put books in the fronts of their minds," Bol recalled. "Their usual conversation is, 'How are you?' 'Fine.' It's meaningless talk. How cool if 'whatcha' readin'?' could be the new 'hello.' "
He's already implementing the plan with buttons and stickers that carry the motto. He wants to see the slogan on backpacks, bikes or anywhere young people will see it. And he's hoping to get celebrities to use the phrase.
For Bol, there is no end to possible directions for Little Free Library.
For instance, he's in talks with the American Hiking Society to create phone apps to guide people on walking tours of Little Libraries.
His impact may continue to grow, too. Bol was filmed by Voice of America while he was in Washington, D.C., recently for a spot that will run in China.
As Bol finished a tour recently of Little Free Library headquarters, he tapped a thin wall and said, "We've already expanded this building three times. We just keep growing."
NEW BOOK INCLUDES BUILDING PLANS
Even as about 36 million books were exchanged last year as part of the Little Free Library program, there never has been a single book about the organization.
"The Little Free Library Book," a 200-page hardcover published by Minneapolis-based Coffee House Press and written by Twin Cities author Margret Aldrich, explains the history and the philosophy of LFL creator Todd Bol, stories of stewards around the world, tips for starting and curating a Little Library, building plans and 350 color photos of the most creative libraries.
The book will be previewed at today's Big Little Party, but the official launch will be at 7 p.m. April 23 at Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis. The event is free and open to the public.
Coffee House Press, a literary publisher with a national reputation, is a Little Free Library partner that has donated more than 10,000 of its books to be placed in Little Libraries. When LFL won the National Book Foundation's 2013 Innovations in Reading Prize, Coffee House celebrated by donating another $18,583 worth of books.
Aldrich interviewed more than 70 Little Library stewards in the U.S. and other countries.
"Everyone was so enthusiastic. They believe in Little Libraries and the good they are doing" she said. "For every story I put in, there were 10 more I wanted to add."
As Aldrich worked on the book she tried to figure out what it is about a simple box of books that makes people connect.
Besides building community, putting books in people's everyday paths, and designing and caring for libraries with no rules, Aldrich thinks Little Libraries slow us down in a world that goes so quickly.
"We've reached an era where Google, Amazon, Netflix calculate exactly what we should be reading and watching," she says. "It's a real pleasure to open a Little Free Library and not know what's going to be inside."