Interview with Little Free Library

Little Free Library, a winner of the 2013 Innovations in Reading Prize, is a free book exchange and social movement. Volunteers build and install creatively-designed book boxes for their local communities to share books with one another. There are now more than 10,000 Little Free Libraries installed around the world. Below is our interview with Rick Brooks, co-founder of Little Free Library.

National Book Foundation: What inspired your Innovations in Reading-winning program?  

Rick Brooks: Funny how the Innovations in Reading program focuses on “thinking outside the box,” because the prototype Little Free Library was just that—a box of books in my partner Todd Bol’s front yard. Both the structure itself and its contents had value. What we soon realized together was that what happened outside that box could establish a rich combination of purposes—new cultural norms for giving and sharing, friendships across generations and cultures, new dissemination channels for books, new ways to extend the reach of public libraries, and much more. To be honest, our inspiration came from many different directions—our mothers and teachers, book lovers and favorite authors. Illiterate farmers and poor families in developing countries also fit into the mix, as do young people with an indefatigable desire to learn, neighbors who are lonely, and people who have a yearning for a sense of community. So do people like Lutie Stearns, the Wisconsin librarian who delivered nearly 1,400 wooden boxes of books to tiny communities throughout Wisconsin between 1895 and 1912. Storytellers and pioneers who knew they had something important to offer and refused to give up.

NBF: What obstacles or challenges have you encountered along the way?  

RB: Because this family of ideas was neither high-tech nor intended to make millions of dollars, it grew almost organically from the ground up.  There was no start-up capital or venture funding; no precedent or business model; and no large institution that stepped up to take the enterprise under its wing and protect it.  So when the word got out through national media and the potential benefits of Little Free Libraries became more obvious, our two-person, then five-person group of volunteers and modestly paid staff found itself in much higher demand than anyone could rightly expect to meet.

That was both the blessing and the conundrum: how do we stay true to our nonprofit mission and grassroots origin but stay ahead of the massive—yes, worldwide—interest in recreating the magic that got us “out of the box” in the first place?  Early adopters of this innovation became our heroes and advocates. We believed then and now that the name they have earned—stewards of Little Free Libraries—accurately represents the heart of this movement.

Anyone can build a box and fill it with books. They can be proud of their work, even though the roof might leak and they run out of books every once in a while. But there is an almost spiritual aspect of Little Free Libraries that transcends the very temporary trends of popular culture.

NBF: What are the most satisfying aspects of the work your organization does?

RB: Every week we receive hundreds of photographs and messages from people around the world who have brought Little Free Libraries to their communities. We are amazed at the diversity of interest: from a state health department and community health clinics who want to use Little Free Libraries as a key part of their outreach efforts on lead poisoning and early childhood development to elderly housing programs, food pantries, and after-school programs in small towns. There are now Little Free Libraries in countries that we did not even know existed three years ago. Handwritten notes of thanks as well as tearful requests for help getting books in the hands of kids who have never owned one. Grandpas stand proudly beside the Libraries they built for their grandchildren. Survivors of hurricanes and tornados show us the Libraries they built from storm debris. Above the Arctic Circle and in the jungles of Latin America and Africa, Little Free Libraries offer something to do in refugee camps, orphanages, and village squares. Seeing such expressions of goodness and commitment can be extremely gratifying.

NBF: How has winning the Innovations in Reading Prize affected your organization?  

RB: We honestly don’t know yet. We hope that it will help us find partners and support that will relieve some of the pressure to keep up with the huge expansion. We also hope it will help Little Free Libraries to be perceived as an important part of the wide spectrum of service that publishers, schools, and public libraries have fulfilled for years.

NBF: What’s on the horizon for your organization for 2014?

RB: Our four primary programs, Little Free Libraries for Small Towns, Books Around the Block, Good Global Neighbors, and Friends Through the Years, now offer a coherent framework to reach three to four more times the number of people who already know us. Our Give It Forward Team (GIFT) is gaining momentum, too. We’re looking for underwriters and partners helping those who could not otherwise afford Little Free Libraries.

Our primary goal is not necessarily to GET BIG.  Instead, we want to provide both the inspiration and the tools for people everywhere to get involved at their own pace for the common good.  We would like to share the neighborhood and small town experience of Little Free Libraries personally, and see the creative ways that this concept has come alive.  Will there be beautifully crafted boxes of books in art and history museums and folk festivals? We have no doubt. And will they touch the lives of all kinds of people—readers and non-readers alike? We hope so.