Little Free Libraries promote literacy, community

Photo+by+Carolyn+Muyskens

Photo by Carolyn Muyskens

Little Free Libraries are precisely what they sound like: small-scale neighborhood book exchanges. They have sprung up all over Grand Rapids in the past few years.

Funded, built and maintained by individuals in the community, these Little Free Libraries (LFLs) operate on a “take a book, leave a book” principle, with no library cards, due dates or late fees involved.

On the Little Free Libraries website, library owners, called stewards, can register their libraries and receive an official charter number. According to the site, there are 26 registered Little Free Libraries within the Grand Rapids and East Grand Rapids city limits.

LFLs come in all shapes and sizes. Most LFLs are small wooden boxes that stand in their owners’ front yards like birdhouses or mailboxes, but each library steward makes theirs differently. The Little Free Library on Benjamin Ave., for example, is a mini replica of the house of its owners just behind it. At St. Thomas the Apostle School, the library is built into a small nook in an entryway and has decorative brick arches that mirror those of the school.

Harry Coffill of East Grand Rapids received his Little Free Library as a Christmas present from his wife. “I used to be a school librarian before transferring back to the classroom, and I think she knows I miss it,” Coffill said. He broke ground for his library this past Easter: “I had to dig a post hole while the ground was still pretty cold, but I was eager.”

In Coffill’s neighborhood, the library serves as a way to connect and share with neighbors. He explained, “We’re well served by our public library, so this is more of a ‘book swap.’”

Because of the constant swapping, Little Free Libraries are a grab bag of literature in which religious and philosophical texts rub shoulders with beach reads and picture books. One on Youell Ave. across from Wilcox Park had “Goodnight Moon,” “To the Lighthouse” and “The Feminine Mystique” on its shelves as of last Saturday.

Elsewhere in Grand Rapids, a Little Free Library is on a mission: to improve literacy and give community members free access to study materials that would otherwise be costly. Jubilee Jobs, which is located in the Baxter neighborhood, offers GED classes, employment readiness training and job placement assistance to youth and adults. Their Little Free Library “is an important outlet for encouraging literacy with the individuals and families we serve,” said Jubilee Jobs director Marcia Osborne. “Books are expensive and we encourage students to pass their current study materials on to help another student achieve their high school credential goal.”

Both Coffill’s and Osborne’s libraries rely on donations.

“Jubilee was blessed with a church special offering to fund the cost of our LFL and we had a volunteer make the rolling stand,” said Osborne. Coffill’s family supports the cost of maintaining their library, but the books they circulate are gifts.

“We’re existing on baskets and bags full of books donated by friends and neighbors,” said Coffill.

For Osborne, the philosophy behind Little Free Libraries reflects the spirit of her organization.

“Most of the individuals and families we serve have not heard of ‘Little Free Library’ and the concept of take a book, return a book. This helps to foster a giving community and represents what we call the ‘Jubilee Way.’” She also noted that Jubilee’s LFL has sparked the interest of program participants who now want to start them in their own neighborhoods.

Jubilee’s Little Free Library is located on the third floor of the Baxter Community Center.