Zooming by in your car, you might mistake them for bird McMansions.
By TIM ENGLE
The Kansas City Star
Or plus-size mailboxes for catalog-lovers whove never heard of the Internet.
Or maybe doghouses on a stick, for pooches that love to jump.
But no. Really, to appreciate a Little Free Library for what it is, you should encounter one on a stroll through the neighborhood. Then youll see its a tiny house where books live.
Free for the taking. No strings attached.
I just think its cool to walk around your neighborhood and come across a Little Free Library, look in there and spot a book that strikes your fancy. Or your childs fancy, says Jane McDowell of Overland Park. She put a little library in her front yard last spring.
Based on a map on the Little Free Library website and chatter among local stewards people who erect the boxes and maintain them wed say the Kansas City area has at least 20 little libraries so far, typically about the size of a recycling bin.
The idea germinated in a small Wisconsin town in 2009, when Todd Bol built a diminutive one-room schoolhouse out of an old garage door as a tribute to his late mom, a teacher. He stocked it with books and put it on a post outside.
Bol soon joined forces with another Wisconsinite, Rick Brooks, and soon the Little Free Library concept was born (and has since gone international).
Among their influences: businessman/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who helped finance 2,500-plus public libraries a century ago, and Miss Lutie Stearns, a former teacher who crisscrossed Wisconsin with traveling libraries between 1895 and 1914. And, of course, paperback exchanges already popular in coffee shops and other spots.
But back to public libraries: Why, you might ask, should anyone go to the trouble of building or buying a little library and constantly have to replenish the supply of books when a perfectly good big library is not too far away?
Well, talk to some local stewards and you hear a lot about community and neighborhood. For instance:
• McDowell of Overland Park likes the neighborhood aspect of it. She first encountered a little library about a year and a half ago as she was walking her dog.
I stopped and looked in, and there was a book I was dying to read, she remembers.
But she wasnt quite sure how to proceed.
Kids reach in and grab the book, McDowell says. Adults, we walk by and we look around to see if anyones watching. But in the end she took the book, delighted by the experience.
She paid a young guy starting a custom furniture business to make her library, which she painted. Now when she has friends over, she asks them to bring a book instead of snacks. Neighbors help out, too.
And if someone contributes a book that McDowell wants to read, she helps herself.
I figure as a steward I can take it out and read it and then put it back in.
• Some little libraries contain instructions for clueless passersby. Dave and Erin Schmidts is one of those.
Welcome! Open the door. See a book you like? Take it! begins the directive, taped to the top of the glass door.
The Schmidts live on busy Holmes Road, east of Brookside. Theyve made their front-yard library an inviting oasis, complete with shade and tree-trunk seating.
Their Little Free Library also has a theme: good for the soul books only. No books with violent content. (The Little Free Library organization urges stewards to stock books appropriate for neighbors of all ages and backgrounds.)
Dave and kids Oscar, 10, and Lucy, almost 12, built the library secretly in the basement as a Christmas present for Erin. (Dave obviously has skills: He has also erected an elaborate backyard treehouse.) Artist neighbor Jenny Whitehead added some bling, and the little library was put out in February.
Childrens books go the fastest, taken by students from nearby St. Peters School and moms pushing strollers. When her inventory gets low, Erin hits garage sales or thrift stores.
One book came back to the library three times, then someone took it for good. Title: 14,000 Things to Be Happy About.
• Just blocks away, in the Armour Hills neighborhood, Robin Wall admits that her mini-library sat in the basement for six months before she got around to painting it colors that matched her house. It went public in February, so she knows it can withstand a Kansas City winter.
Little Free Librarys motto is Take a Book, Return a Book, but Walls policy is more liberal.
I dont care if they take a book and dont put something in. Ill go find some more, she says.
In her view, the only books worth saving are first editions you really love. Everything else should be shared.
• Danielle Theiss, whose library faces a popular walking trail in her Lees Summit lake community, regards the box as something of a gift to the neighborhood.
This is just a way to build community, and people can put in books that they love or just want to get rid of, says Theiss, whos an actual librarian. She works at Rockhurst University.
She commissioned artist Dave Eames to build her micro library with a bird motif. Eames (whos also an artist for The Star) lives in Lees Summit, too, and designed his own library. The two have talked about how once you have one, you feel compelled to check it every day.
Theiss library went up just this fall. Early on, popular adult fiction was moving the fastest, but lately its pretty dominated by childrens literature thats what little kids keep putting in, tiny books.
• In Columbus Park, east of the River Market, we love books, we love our neighborhood and we have lots of foot traffic on our street, says Chris Dahlquist.
Chris, a photographer, and husband Kyle built their little library from scratched picture-frame wood and similar scraps. But theyd first explored one of the Habitat for Humanity ReStores, hoping to repurpose something like an old kitchen cabinet.
They installed the library this month to coincide with a Third Friday art show opening at Trap Gallery across the street.
Chris says the project brings to mind the box libraries that traveled by supply boat from lighthouse to lighthouse, giving keepers something to read.
She can already imagine neighbors working in the nearby community garden: Hey, you should read this book. Ill stick it in the library. (Turns out plans are afoot to plant a little library in the garden.)
Real libraries, by the way, dont seem to mind their half-pint offspring.
Kaite Stover, director of readers services for the Kansas City Public Library, has a Little Free Library in her neighborhood. Its an idea she adores.
People who own and operate their own little libraries place a great deal of value, she says, on the big ones that they also own but let us operate.
A little free library of your own?
Nothing can stop you from putting a box in your front yard and filling it with books for the taking (unless your homeowners association says otherwise). But the Little Free Library program says that when you register your library at the website, littlefreelibrary.org, you get an authorized sign and number and permission to use the Little Free Library name. (Standard charter sign: $34.95. Custom charter sign: $74.95.)
The website also sells mini-libraries, ranging from the bare-bones Essential model for $175 to the Amish Two Story Brownstone ($290) to the Little Red British Phone Booth Library ($600). Custom-painted models start at $600.
Yes, in case you were wondering, Little Free Library is a nonprofit organization.
If you want to build your own, (free) tips and plans can be found on the website, which also helpfully suggests items that could be repurposed into libraries, such as old microwaves, toolboxes or bread boxes. Get more design ideas by searching for Little Free Library at Google Images or on Pinterest.
To find some local little libraries, click Map on the LFL website.