‘Little Free Libraries’ grow throughout KC area — except in Leawood

06/24/2014 10:22 AM

06/25/2014 7:24 AM

Free library boxes have become a craze, popping up on front lawns across the country — but not in Leawood.

Next month 9-year-old Spencer Collins and his family will appear before the Leawood City Council to plead for their little blue box on red stilts, a “Little Free Library” the city made them take down this month.

The Collins family had set up their library on Mother’s Day, joining a worldwide movement that promotes handcrafted structures and a free book exchange. It stood at the end of the family’s driveway for about a month, but it now sits in their garage after the city sent a letter saying the library violates a city ordinance prohibiting structures in front yards.

“We all don’t seem as able to just get out and meet each other, but the library helped us meet neighbors and form community,” said Sarah Collins, who received the library as a gift from her father, husband and son.

“One couple walks with their young daughters every day, and they started walking by our house just to see the books. It has been wonderful to get to know them.”

Spencer said he thought the library was a lot of fun for his mom and dad, as well as kids in the neighborhood. The Collins family added a few books, but most of them, which include children’s books and bird-watching guides, were donated. Anyone can bring a book, and anyone can take one.

“I really liked a lot of the books that came,” said Spencer, who would check the library for new books whenever he came home. “Someone brought ‘The Phantom Tollbooth,’ and that’s one of my favorites.”

Brian Collins, Sarah’s husband, said it was Spencer’s idea to ask the Leawood City Council to make an exception for the little libraries.

“We want to work with the city to create positive change in this,” said Brian Collins, who has been in Leawood for 12 years. “This wouldn’t be a problem if we lived just north, in Prairie Village or KCMO. And we’ve only heard positive feedback.”

Leawood Mayor Peggy Dunn said a courtesy notice was issued to the Collins because neighbors made complaints to the city. She said City Council is planning to discuss this as a special business item July 7 and will welcome comment from Spencer and his family.

“I’m hopeful there will be some resolution,” Dunn said. “It will take a majority of the council to create an exception from the ordinance.”

Dunn said if the council votes to change the ordinance — a time-consuming process — it could in the meantime place a moratorium on the ordinance. That would mean little libraries could legally go up in Leawood as soon as July 8.

Leawood Councilman Jim Rawlings said he would support the ordinance as it stands, though he added he was not against the good intentions of the family.

“This is different than a one-day Kool-Aid stand; it’s a permanent structure,” Rawlings said. “This question is, where do you draw the line on front yard structures?”

About 30 Little Free Libraries have popped up in the Kansas City area, according to the nonprofit Little Free Library. The first little library was built by Todd Bol of Wisconsin in 2009 as a tribute to his mother, a former schoolteacher who loved to read.

Bol and co-founder Rick Brooks decided to create the nonprofit network after the popularity of the little libraries exploded. At the beginning of this year, the nonprofit estimated that there are 15,000 registered little libraries throughout 62 countries.

It has been exciting to watch the libraries really take hold in Kansas City in the past five years, Bol said. He plans on sending Spencer a Little Free Library T-shirt and hat to encourage him in his stand for his library. He said he heard about the Collins family through online media stories.

“In Madison it's illegal because of a structure ordinance, but the government officials said they would no sooner shut it down than eliminate lemonade stands,” Bol said. “They build community and get neighbors to talk to one another. They’re more than sheds or mailboxes.”

Bol recalled another town, like Leawood, that grappled with how to handle the little libraries. In Whitefish Bay, Wis., city officials put a stop to the libraries because of a similar front yard ordinance. Within a year, the city had reversed its decision because of negative public reaction.

“I thought the whole thing was ridiculous,” said Richard Foster, a Whitefish Bay village trustee. “We finally passed an ordinance that was very permissive to the libraries. My advice to Leawood is to be hands-off. Not everything requires some kind of government action.”

Bol said he could not think of many other communities that have had problems with the libraries. Rather, he said he’s heard an incredible amount of feedback about how the little libraries are encouraging literacy and neighborhood conversation.

“Some people don’t like puppies, some people don’t like little libraries,” Bol said with a chuckle. “I guess there’s a negative side to everything if you want to see it.”

Gwyneth Jones of Mission said she still chooses to see the positive in her two little libraries, even after they were ransacked earlier in the month. All the books, which Jones estimates to be about 100, were taken while Jones was away from her house.

“I put a sign in my yard that the books had been taken, and people immediately started bringing books,” Jones said. “If anything, the vandalism has strengthened my desire to keep the momentum going in the KC area. I really believe it’s making a difference in the community; just look at how fast these books are showing back up.”

To reach Caroline Bauman, call 816-234-4449 or send email to cbauman@kcstar.com.

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