As I drove down a quaint side-street in Cape May last weekend, I noticed a tiny house on someone’s lawn. This was not an HGTV-inspired Tiny House, but a lilliputian structure sitting atop a post, like a dollhouse on stilts.
My curiosity was piqued. Was it a mailbox? A birdhouse? I wasn’t sure, until I got closer and saw that it was filled, but not with miniature furniture or birdseed.
It was filled with books. Lots of them, considering its size.
A hand-painted sign nailed to the post read, “Free Little Library – Take a Book, Return a Book”.
I opened the glass door of the little house to find a note, welcoming visitors. Inside were books of every type, size and genre – novels, young adult reads, children’s books, cook books, self-help manuals, you name it. A book for every type of reader, free for the taking as long as the reader agrees to return the same book or bring a different one from home. Or both.
I enjoyed checking out all the different books, including a small notebook with a pen attached where previous visitors had taken the time to write thank you notes or provide short reviews of the books they had read. Some had even drawn pictures.
Later, I would learn that in 2009, visionary Tom H. Bol was recycling a garage door and built a small school house structure in honor of his late mother. He placed it on the lawn of his Wisconsin home and stocked it with books for his neighbors to borrow. This simple act was the beginning of his non-profit organization, “Little Free Library”, a neighborhood book exchange where community members are invited to take or leave a book for other readers’ enjoyment. The goal of the organization is to inspire reading and build community interaction.
“Stewards”, or community members who wish to start their own library, can either build their own structure and register it with the organization, or they can purchase a kit or a pre-made library. Stewards are asked to maintain the structure and ensure a healthy supply of books. Most importantly, they are to act as their name suggests – as stewards of the movement – inspiring other community members to read, share and interact with one another. The Little Free Library organization provides building instructions, online resources and support, as well as access to free or discounted books through the organization’s partners and an online store offering library kits and supplies.
Within a few short years, Bol’s vision became a global project. Today, there are over 50,000 registered Little Free Library book exchanges in all 50 states and over 70 countries around the world. Millions of books are exchanged each year through this community-based project. The organization maintains a world map of registered Little Free Libraries to help people find and share books in their own communities or, like me, a community they are visiting. Some Little Free Library kits are donated to communities in need of increased access to books, where such access can have a big impact on children’s literacy efforts.
A new program called “Kids, Community & Cops” provides a connection between law enforcement and the community to foster positive interactions with youth. Police Departments interested in becoming involved in this program are invited to apply to receive one of 50 Little Free Library book exchanges or 50 mobile libraries (yes, they also encourage taking your library on the road!).
I lost myself for a few minutes at that little library on South Broadway. I enjoyed reading the titles and checking out the notebook to see what people had written. There were a lot of notes, not only from neighbors but from visitors like me. One message in particular grabbed my attention – it was from a high school student.
“Dear Mr. Derby, thank you for sharing your Little Free Library with us and including a book about the Civil War. It really helped me on my History paper – I got an A!”
On the following page was a picture drawn by Sophie, age 3. It was as simple stick figure rendition of herself and her mom reading a book. Both had huge smiles on their faces.
The next message was from Darlene. “Hi Marianne – hope you had fun at the wedding! You have to try the recipe on page 29 of the Mediterranean Cookbook – I know you are trying to find a way to use up all the tomatoes you grew this summer, and this dish calls for lots of them!”
As I closed the door to the tiny building, I smiled. It seemed this Free Little Library had succeeded in reaching its goal of bringing communities together over books.
Author’s Note: There are, at the time of this publication, several Little Free Libraries down the shore. There is one in Ocean City (317 Wesley Avenue), one in Stone Harbor (317 110th Street), one in Wildwood (8901 Pacific Avenue), and four in Cape May (104 South Broadway in Cape May; 297 Fifth Avenue in West Cape May; 415 Green Street in West Cape May; and 104 Old Mill Drive (in North Cape May.