July 26, 2016KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReading

Libraries, Little and Free (Part Two)

In my previous post, I wrote about my affection for Little Free Libraries. Because I see so many of them in my neighborhood, and because I pause in front of them so often, I think I had envisioned them as having a longer history than they actually have. In fact, the first Free Library was built by Todd Bol, in 2009, in Hudson, Wisconsin; Bol imagined it as a tribute to his mother, a schoolteacher. Partnering with Rick Brooks—who was, at the time, an outreach program manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—Bol built more libraries, the most prominent of which went up, in 2010, on a Madison bike path. As demand increased, Bol and Brooks added the services of Henry Miller, an Amish carpenter. The team’s original goal was to build 2,509 libraries, the same number of free public libraries that Andrew Carnegie sponsored over a century ago. Today, more than 40,000 Little Free Libraries can be found in front yards, parks, and bike paths across the world.

One of my dear friends, the St. Paul writer Carrie Pomeroy, has a Little Free Library in front of her home. Earlier this week, I asked Carrie a few questions about the experience.

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CW: What sorts of responses have you had from people who’ve stopped by your library?

CP: We’ve had some really great interactions with people thanking us for having it and telling me what kinds of books they’ve found there or what books they’d like to see. One of my favorite interactions was with a family that stopped by on Mother’s Day to “shop” for something for their mom/mother-in-law. They didn’t find anything for her, but the father of the family, an aspiring writer, carted off an armload of references for sci-fi and fantasy writers and the daughter got a pile of Cricket magazines. People have also spotted Metro Transit bus drivers stopping city buses to check the LFL, which really charms and delights me.

My latest favorite interaction was when three twentyish, smart-phone-wielding Pokémon Go players informed me that our LFL was an official Pokéstop in the game.

CW: What donated books have caught your attention?

CP: My memory is too crappy to answer the question about specific books that have caught my attention. Mostly I’m just amazed by the diversity of materials—Christian religious tracts, far-left and far-right political books, romance and mystery novels, academic books, computer how-to manuals, literary fiction, sports books, cookbooks, gardening books—and how it all just keeps circulating. It’s a place where all sorts of ideas can collide and coexist peacefully, no questions asked about how they got there or where they’re headed next.

CW: Which books get grabbed quickly? Which stick around forever?

CP: I’d say children’s books, especially picture books and board books for the very young, get grabbed most quickly. I can’t think of anything that sticks around forever, honestly. It all goes, somehow or other, sooner or later—even weird stuff you’d think no one would want, like a huge Best of Ziggy comics compilation.

CW: Ziggy! I loved Ziggy when I was a kid. And now I have to interrupt this interview to quote from Wikipedia’s weirdly affecting Ziggy article: “Ziggy is a small, bald, trouserless, barefoot, almost featureless character (save for his large nose) who seems to have no friends, hobbies, or romantic partner, just a menagerie of pets: Fuzz, a small white dog; Sid, a cat afraid of mice; Josh, a discouraging parrot; Goldie, a fish; and Wack, a duck.”

Thanks for indulging me—and thanks for your care in answering these questions. Anything else you’d like to add about your library?

CP: The biggest thing that I love about the LFL is the way it gets me talking to people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. This is especially true when I garden in the front yard. I always end up talking with people who stop at the LFL while I’m weeding, something I don’t think would happen without the LFL as a point of connection and conversation. I really appreciate that. I also appreciate that I live in a city where there are no restrictions that I know of on putting up an LFL on your property. My sister-in-law lives in a fancy DC suburb and ran into all sorts of red tape and restrictions on putting up a structure like an LFL. I know I would have just given up if it had been difficult to do, so I feel lucky that it was so easy here. I think it should be easy everywhere!

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A quick coda: I’m writing this post in the wake of this year’s Republican National Convention, a four-day festival of bile and exclusivity that presented itself as the complete antithesis of the Little Free Library movement, in both spirit and mission. Trump’s “Law and Order” focus, lately adopted and full of racist dog whistles, made me almost physically sick. And yet I find myself hoping for a bit more law-abidance among one specific demographic: Little Free Library Thieves and Smashers! One of my favorite Ann Arbor Free Libraries was destroyed last fall after a football game; others in the area have been stolen or temporarily displaced in the past few years. Let’s make America safe again for Little Free Libraries!

And let’s think hard about what it would mean to elect a president who doesn’t read. From Jane Mayer’s New Yorker profile of Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter for The Art of the Deal:

Schwartz believes that Trump’s short attention span has left him with “a stunning level of superficial knowledge and plain ignorance.” He said, “That’s why he so prefers TV as his first news source—information comes in easily digestible sound bites.” He added, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.” During the eighteen months that he observed Trump, Schwartz said, he never saw a book on Trump’s desk, or elsewhere in his office, or in his apartment.