'Little Free Libraries' Hope For Lending Revolution

Two Wisconsin men are on a mission to break Andrew Carnegie's record of creating over 2,500 libraries. They're enlisting the help of book lovers and artists in neighborhoods across the country to help reach that goal, one "Little Free Library" at a time.

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Building a library may sound like a massive task. A physical library, we mean, where you could go and borrow a book. Well, here's how some people are making it easy. They're thinking small, say, the size of a large birdhouse. Put a little library on a short post like a mailbox, put it in your front yard and fill it up with books. Then people can help themselves for free.

Here's Wisconsin Public Radio's Kristen Durst.

KRISTEN DURST, BYLINE: Give a book, return a book. That's the motto of what are known as Little Free Libraries. In the university town of Madison, Wisconsin, they're a fixture at a few coffee shops, and there's a library alongside a popular bike path. But mostly, they decorate front yards in many residential neighborhoods. Judy Clowes calls the Little Free Library on her block a gift.

JUDY CLOWES: Because my kids will run over there. I've run into friends of friends who I don't know well dropping off a book at the free library and finding, oh, this is just the right age and reading level for my daughter and taking it home. I mean, there are all of these nice, little serendipitous connections that happen with your neighbors.

DURST: It's those connections that make Louise Elbaum's volunteer job as a Little Free Library steward so enjoyable.

LOUISE ELBAUM: I feel like I have to keep the walk shoveled so that people...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELBAUM: ...can get to it. I see people all the time.

DURST: Each little library has an official caretaker who maintains it. Elbaum says looking after the one on her Madison front yard is a lot of fun.

ELBAUM: We've met people who live a block away, and we've never met. And, you know, it's interesting. Occasionally, for example, this "Children of God" is a book that we really loved. I have no idea who put it in there. But it's just fun to see an old friend in there, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELBAUM: And I do check occasionally and make sure that it's not full of pornography or something awful.

DURST: Elbaum laughs and says she's never had any problems with questionable materials. And founder Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, says there have been very few issues overall with the Little Free Libraries other than an occasional missing door.

TODD BOL: One of the things that always just amazes me is how many people hug them when we actually put them in. We constantly get emails that say I've met more people than I have in 20 years. People are always happy. My favorite thing to do is sit on my porch and read a book and watch people open the library.

DURST: It was Bol who constructed the first Little Free Library. He put it in his front yard and built it to resemble a one-room schoolhouse in honor of his mother, a teacher.

BOL: And we had a garage sale, cold windy day, a very bad garage sale, but people kept coming up to us and commenting about the library. And what I found so fascinating is it appealed to men, women, kids, you know, I mean, 5-year-olds, 90-year-olds.

DURST: Bol shared his creation with his friend, Rick Brooks of Madison, and the two hatched a plan for expansion and launched a website. Today, Brooks says there are over 200 Little Free Libraries in 34 states and 17 countries.

RICK BROOKS: They get an official number and a sign that says give a book, return a book, and then they put it on their library, and we put them on a Google Map. And it also has photographs, the story of their library, who was involved.

DURST: The libraries themselves can be simple or elaborate, purchased or homemade. There are cabins made by an Amish craftsman from Wisconsin. Many are made from recycled materials. And some are lovingly painted with Holstein cow spots, trees and scenes from books. Founders Bol and Brooks say their goal is to see over 2,500 Little Free Libraries constructed around the world. They're hoping to exceed the number of libraries built by the late philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. For NPR News, I'm Kristen Durst in Madison, Wisconsin.

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