En español | Do you ever see those cabinet-style boxes on posts outside people's homes? They most likely contain books that anyone can take, to borrow or keep. Some call them little free libraries, and they are the most positive of trends: a good way to declutter your house while connecting with your neighborhood.
Although these altruistic efforts have been around for a little more than a decade now, they drew new attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people mostly kept to their neighborhoods and many community libraries and bookstores were closed.
Elizabeth Kelley, 60, of Silver Spring, Maryland, put up a little free library in her front yard in 2018, but she noticed an increase in visitors during the pandemic.
"I thought it was a good idea and that I could create a little bit of community with people sharing books,” says Kelley, a high school social studies teacher. “It's kind of like a book club where you don't have to have any of the conversation."
Kelley sometimes buys used books to put in her little free library, a green-and-white wooden box on a post on her front lawn. But just as often, people take books and also refill the library from their own collections. Most popular are children's books, which Kelley says she does have to replenish. The little library is a frequent stop-off point for neighbors on walks, parents out for a stroll with their children, and dog walkers.
Kelley sometimes decorates the library for the holidays; for Halloween, a skeleton reading a book was perched atop the box. During the pandemic she has stocked it with free homemade masks. Maintaining the structure, sorting through the books to place in the library and organizing the space take limited effort, she says, and the reward is big.
"It makes me happy,” Kelley says. “I'm a teacher and a reader, so I love the idea of sharing books with people.”
How to create your own library
But even as the country begins to reopen and public libraries invite readers in once more, expect to see little free libraries continue to pop up like mushrooms. Reading fanatics love sharing books with others. Here are some tips for starting a little free library.
Get the word out. It isn't enough to just put out the books. Try creating a Facebook page for your library, or post about it in Nextdoor or other neighborhood social media groups, says Jenifer Nichols, 51, a little-library owner in Oklahoma. Hunter Bennett, 50, created a monthly email newsletter for his little library in Washington, D.C. The newsletter features book reviews, interviews and, of course, information about titles available in his library. You can also register with Little Free Library. This nonprofit group will then add your library to its map of more than 100,000 such places in over 100 countries.
Get creative. Some people catch readers’ eyes with interesting shapes, decorations or themes. “In my neighborhood there are a ton of libraries,” Bennett notes. “But as far as I can tell, we are the only one that has a punk rock and crime theme.” Themes can also connect you with people who share your interests.
Plan special events. For Dr. Seuss’ birthday, Nichols decorates her library with balloons and fills it with Dr. Seuss books only. Plus, she takes donations around winter-holiday time and wraps new books to give to local children.
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Go beyond your own collection. Bennett also includes books left by others. Nichols stocks her library with books she buys in bulk at flea markets and garage sales.
Build it to last. If you aren't handy, you can buy a premade little-library kit, as Bennett did. Nichols fashioned hers from an old newspaper vending box. Plus, you can find tutorials online for building a library. Whatever you choose, make sure to pick something waterproof with a sturdy door.
AARP editor Michelle R. Davis contributed to this story.