Little Libraries with a Big Message

By Nicole Ellis
Photos by Jessica Worthington

It’s a birdfeeder! It’s a mailbox! No, it’s a library!

Walking past Kittredge School on 25th Avenue and Lake Street in the Richmond District sits a wooden box that measures about twenty-three inches wide and eighteen inches high. The rustic looking box is nestled in the corner of the school’s front steps and holds books that have been donated by the students’ parents and community members. This contraption is more then just a box full of books; it’s a library.

People in cities around the nation are building small libraries and mounting them in their yards, schools, and neighborhoods. Each Little Free Library is unique. There’s no rules or restrictions when building a library. A San Francisco hippie might want to paint theirs rainbow. A farmer in Georgia might want to recreate a barn look by painting the library red, distressing the wood, and adding a white trim. The options are endless.

Like the libraries themselves, the books can be just as eccentric. “We suggest that people donate books that have inspired them, says Smitty, a parent of a Kittredge student who donated the library. “Books you want other people to read because you loved it so much and it is nice when someone leaves a note attached telling why the book was special to them.” The concept is easy— take a book, leave a book. Donations are welcome, but unlike a city owned library, you don’t have to return the book if you fall it love with it. And like the name says, it’s free!
Out of the thousands of Little Free Libraries around the world, San Francisco has only one listed on the Little Free Library’s online map— Kittredge’s.

Little Free Library began in 2009 as a non-profit by a Wisconsin organization called SustainAbility. The concept of creating an earth friendly community shared library was started by two entrepreneurs, Todd Bol and Rick Brooks. Bol and Brooks’ creation has inspired over five thousand Little Free Libraries in thirty-six countries.

Bol was the first to build a little library. In May of 2009, Bol and his wife had a garage sale and he noticed his customers’ excitement when they saw the little library. “They talked to it like it was a brand new puppy and I realized it was something very special,” says Bol. His mission of fusing literacy and community has made its way to the Bay Area.

Buying a library is simple. “I bought it online from the Little Free Library website,” says Smitty. “They fused together two old and weathered cranberry crates from the 1950s and then added a swinging door.” The libraries can be ordered online and range from $250 to $630. Ordering the structures online isn’t the only option. Little Free Library promotes creativity. Their website has instructions on how to build a library from scratch. Those guidelines are also up to interpretation but they do offer general principles to build by: use recycled materials if possible, build the library to last, make it safe, make sure the sign is visible, and don’t be scared to make it funky and different.

“In the equation, it should be reduce, reuse, repurpose, and then finally recycle,” says Bol. “Recycling should be the last of the things. We’re not one hundred percent perfect, but we certainly make a lot of movement toward that.”

A local Little Free Library that’s missed the map’s radar is located at a residence on Sutter Street in the Lower Pacific Heights district. Bol believes this library is one of about four hundred libraries in San Francisco that haven’t been registered online. Having the libraries appear on the Little Free Libraries map will pinpoint the location of each box in every neighborhood. “We’ve noticed it opens up neighborhoods and gets people to talk,” says Bol.

Little Free Libraries is a creative way to bring communities together. “A good friend of mine says Facebook has demonstrated how we need something, how we need to connect and network,” Bol says. “But what we really want to do network wise is we want to connect face-to-face and Little Free Library is Facebook with a face.”