Thursday, May 21, 2020
May 21, 2020: LibraryStudying: Little Free Libraries
[On May 23rd, 1895, the project which would become the New York Public Library was launched. So for the 125th anniversary, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of libraries and library contexts, leading up to a special post on the NYPL!]
On why it’s hard to criticize a recent bibliographic trend, and one way I would nonetheless.
As far as my research on the intertubes reveals (always a foolproof method of information gathering, of course), no one (not even the official Little Free Library website) seems to know exactly when this trend began. I would say it was sometime in the last decade or so, anyway, that I started to notice these standing boxes of books springing up around various neighborhoods and communities, always with the message that the books were free to take but that the borrower should ideally leave a book of their own to replace the one that they were taking. To say that the concept has caught on would be to significantly understate the case: if we go by the official website’s map (which only highlights those little free libraries that have been formally registered by the “stewards” who maintain them, so likely leaves out many more boxes still), there are now thousands upon thousands of these little free libraries around the U.S. and the world.
I’m a big fan of books (perhaps the least surprising clause I’ve ever written in this space), and so of course I like any concept which gets more books out into our communities and into more readers’ hands. Moreover, the official Little Free Library mission statement emphasizes goals of access and equity, of helping provide opportunities for kids (in particular) and families that might have a more difficult time getting their hands on books to do so, free of charge and 24/7. Of course public libraries (on which more in a moment) can offer similar such opportunities, but not with those unlimited hours of access, and I know that libraries in disadvantaged communities can be frustratingly underfunded (and likely will be even more so after this pandemic) and so can become less available to their residents than would be ideal. Little Free Libraries can thus be seen as complementary to public libraries, advancing the same basic goal and doing so in ways that might fill in gaps or address limitations of public libraries in our 21st century world.
And yet (ah, how many paragraphs on this blog have I started with that phrase!). As I highlighted a bit in yesterday’s post, public libraries offer communal opportunities and benefits that go far beyond the opportunity for individuals and families to borrow books (fundamental as that will always be to a library’s mission). And they can likewise do so in particular and crucial ways for disadvantaged communities—offering free and accessible space for those who need somewhere to go, offering computers and internet access for those who don’t have them otherwise, providing additional programs and materials that can help with job interviews, and many more such offerings and opportunities. None of those are things that Little Free Libraries can offer, which isn’t in and of itself a criticism of them. But again, we’re in an era when public libraries are often underfunded and always (from what I can tell) battling to receive the support they need—and it seems to me that any popular, alternative form of book-borrowing risks making it seem that public libraries are less necessary or important. So at the very least, I would want us all to remember all the ways that public libraries remain vital, and that Little Free Libraries cannot and will not take their place.
Last library tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this post, or other libraries you’d highlight/celebrate?