Perhaps you’ve seen one by the side of the road, or when on holiday. Maybe you are lucky enough to have one locally, next to a school or fixed to a garden wall. There are over 125,000 of them around the world, in over a hundred countries. I’m talking about Little Free Libraries. There’s one outside my house, and I’ll tell you a bit about it.
I’ve been aware of the Little Free Library movement for a while. As a sucker for free books – and also for sharing and recommending things to read – I very much liked the idea of miniature book-sharing boxes in public places. I didn’t get round to hosting one myself until the pandemic in 2020. With libraries and bookshops closed, I created a ‘little lockdown library’ on the driveway as a way to serve my neighbours.
Like all Little Free Libraries, it ran on trust. I put books in it and people took them. Sometimes they came back, usually they didn’t. Other people donated books, sometimes big bags of them, of varying quality and interest.
That initial experiment was quite successful, and I learned that the real value of a Little Free Library is bigger than free books. It builds community.
This was sometimes direct. If I was out of the front of the house, putting the bins out or weeding the path, people would talk to me in ways that they didn’t before . I got to know neighbours, dog walkers who go past every day, people on their way to the cornershop. I learned what people liked to read, or what their children read. I discovered a kindly neighbour who unexpectedly devours gritty true crime dramas. The Romanian hipsters next door, with their penchant for white trenchcoats and cowboy hats, tell me they mainly read philosophy.
Some of the positive effect of the library is less direct. Luton isn’t an up-market town, and my neighbourhood is a little scruffy. We don’t have much by way of public amenities – green spaces, benches, flower beds, that sort of thing. What we do have, the bins and bus stops, are worn and faded. So adding something to public space, even something small, can be quite powerful. It sends a message of welcome, of generosity. A Little Free Library is an offer of friendship, and a statement of faith in community. It says that strangers can be trusted and deserve nice things. That’s not something you hear very often in my part of the world.
As well as making the street more friendly, the library changed me too. I enjoy having a house full of books, but giving books away made me more generous. Books were the one area that consumerism has its hooks in me, and generosity disarmed it. I aspire to read books, not to own them. It has broken any sense of protectiveness over my books, and I have become a more cheerful giver.
I also think of others more. When I’m in town, I pop into charity shops or to the library sale, and look for books for the street rather than for myself. I buy children’s books for strangers. I pick up things I wouldn’t read myself, but that I know my neighbours would appreciate. I look out for authors from Poland, Nigeria, Pakistan, so that people on my street know that the library is for them too, and not just for English white folks like me.
It’s not all been plain sailing, it’s fair to say. The contents of my first little library was emptied into the back of someone’s car. I saw them through the window, but I was too late to go out and tell them that wasn’t in the spirit of the thing. I suspect the books turned up at a local car boot sale. The second one fared even worse: it was stolen wholesale, including the little wooden cabinet it was in.
That prompted me to rethink the idea, and once lockdown ended I paused the library to design something more permanent. The one I have now is the fourth iteration, made from scrap wood found in the fly-tipped alley behind my house. It’s custom-built and weather-proof, with a base full of bricks to thwart anyone tempted to heft it into a passing car.
There are of course lots of ways to share books. Cafes, waiting rooms or even supermarkets sometimes have a book swapping shelf. The official Little Free Library is a non-profit based in the States, and I’ve registered my library with them so that it can be found on their global map. That’s optional, and I also have less official book swapping boxes at my church, and at my favourite local cafe.
If books aren’t really your thing, there are other projects that can turn a driveway, front garden or even a front door into a more friendly public space. A Dutch group called the Bench Collective encourages people to place benches at the front of their house. If you have an electric car, you can share a charge point through the Co-Charger network. You could host a swapping shelf for toys, or a community larder, or share plants and seedlings. Window boxes or attractive front gardens benefit your neighbours and passers-by more than they do the residents of the house, who are more likely to be out the back. All these little things are ways to love our neighbours and serve the streets where we live.