Little Free Libraries sound, well, cute. And as small book-filled, house-shaped boxes that perch on posts outside homes around the world, there’s no doubt that they are, in fact, cute. 

But they’re much more than that. These little take-a-book-return-a-book libraries are helping fight illiteracy and crime while bringing together neighborhoods and communities.

From a Memorial to a Movement

“I couldn’t believe she died,” says Todd Bol of his mother, June. She had been a school teacher, and when she passed away, Bol searched for a way to make sure the memory of his beloved mother lived on. In 2009, he put his carpentry skills to work and built a miniature schoolhouse out of an old wooden garage door. He set it on a post in front of his Hudson, Wisc. home, put some books in it, and hung a sign that read: "FREE BOOKS."

The reaction from friends and neighbors of all ages was immediate and enthusiastic. In the following year, Bol built 31 more little libraries, selling one and giving the rest away.

After that, the concept snowballed. Today, Bol is executive director of Little Free Library, a nonprofit that promotes literacy and community by building and promoting free book exchanges. Officially founded only two years ago, the organization now estimates there are more than 20,000 Little Free Libraries across the U.S. and in 75 other countries.

Bol has traveled as far as the Philippines and Japan to discuss how to grow the movement and has even chatted with well-known Hollywood producers about potential collaborations. Larger institutions, like UNESCO and General Mills, are taking notice and working with Little Free Library on projects to help fight illiteracy worldwide.

All of this from one little library in his front yard.

“All of us know there are better ways of doing things,” says Bol. “Everyone wants to talk about it or point fingers, but I’m all for grabbing the shovel and doing something.”

Little Free Library

Literacy and Community

For many, it may be a surprise that illiteracy is still a problem. Not only is it still around, it’s actually an issue that goes beyond simply not being able to read. Illiteracy rates are directly related to crime, drug abuse and unemployment.

Bol quotes a report from the Los Angeles Police Department: 85 percent of all juvenile delinquents who come through their court system are functionally illiterate. In fact, illiteracy and crime are so intimately connected that Bol says many states look at second- and third-grade literacy rates to predict future prison populations.

In some states, the situation is not looking good. Bol describes an “illiteracy tsunami” in Cleveland, Ohio, where 75 percent of third graders are expected to fail the minimum literacy standards, making them ineligible to move on to fourth grade.

“Reading is the foundation of everything when it comes to advancing yourself,” says Bol. “We’re not going to solve this by just throwing a lot of money at it. Communities themselves have to step up and make the change.”

When communities do step up, they find that the benefits go beyond a renewed interest in reading. One thing Bol hears most from the “stewards” (the people who host Little Free Libraries in their yards or neighborhoods) is how powerful the little boxes are at bringing people together. People meet new neighbors, chat about shared interests, and generally start to feel more connected.

A 60-year-old man recently explained this dynamic to Bol. The man said that during his childhood summers, kids played outside while adults read on the front porch, chatting with people who passed by. But when air conditioning was introduced, people went into their homes, shut the windows and turned on the TV.

“He said, ‘It’s taken over 50 years, but we’re finally talking to each other again because of Little Free Libraries,’” recalls Bol. “I like to think of it as a better side of humanity coming out.”

Little Free Library

How to Get Involved

Here are four ways you can get involved in Little Free Libraries:

  1. Buy a Library: There are a variety of libraries for sale on the organization’s website. They are built in the Wisconsin area by a variety of groups, including Amish carpenters, handicapped adults and ex-convicts, and include the use of reclaimed and recycled materials whenever possible. Proceeds support the nonprofit’s mission.
  2. Build a Library: The website also provides plans and tips for building your own library. Bol says 65 percent of Little Free Library stewards choose to build their own. For inspiration, check out these photos.
  3. Sponsor or Donate: Tax-deductible contributions to Little Free Libraries help pay for the organization to distribute Libraries to communities across the country and around the world.
  4. Organize a Team Build Day: Families, businesses and community groups can purchase kits to assemble as a group, or can source their own materials and build and decorate them from scratch. (Bol says that some hardware stores have been known to donate materials.) Groups can send their completed Libraries to Little Free Libraries to distribute to the communities that need them most, or collaborate with a local library system or teachers union to distribute locally. Learn more here.