Just down the road from our home in southeastern Virginia, in front of the local arts center, there is a small wooden box on a pole with a handful of books inside. You can take any book you want from the box, or add one. There are no due dates, no late fees, and no record of who took which book. A few blocks from the arts center, in the front lawn of the home of Pam and Tom DuBois, there’s another. They took it over from a neighbor who moved away a year ago. About a half mile from the DuBois’s, Dixon Rollins and his wife host another with the help of the local arts league.
These are Little Free Libraries, and there are over 75,000 registered ones around the world and perhaps as many unregistered ones. The people who build and stock them (“stewards,” as they are called) do it not only to share a love of reading—particularly in neighborhoods where there is no library—but also to bring neighbors together. As one steward put it: “It’s a place to stop—an oasis of sorts.”
Todd H. Bol, who stumbled onto the idea in 2009, died on October 18. He was 62 years old.
“I originally started Little Free Library,” Bol wrote in 2015, “because of the sheer delight I saw when people approached a Little Free Library for the first time.” That first library was the one he built in 2009. As Margret Aldrich notes in her book about the movement, Bol had just returned from a month-long trip across the country—a trip his wife had suggested he take to clear his head after the company he had started closed its doors. He was cleaning out his garage to turn it into an office and decided to use an old wooden garage door to build a model one-room schoolhouse in honor of his late mother, a former teacher. When he and his wife had a garage sale, Bol put books in the schoolhouse and put it on a pole in his front yard. The neighbors were fascinated, and an idea was born.
Bol built six more libraries—some for his neighbors in Hudson, Wisconsin, and some to place at strategic locations in Madison with the help of Rick Brooks, who was an outreach coordinator at the University of Wisconsin at the time and later became cofounder of the Little Free Library organization. The going was slow at first, but after they received a grant from a nonprofit foundation in Chicago in 2011, they were interviewed on Wisconsin public radio. In 2012, NBC News ran a story about the libraries and other media outlets were soon covering their efforts; interest in Little Free Libraries exploded.
Bol’s hope for Little Free Libraries was, partly, that they would promote literacy and encourage reading. “There are more than 11,000 small towns across the United States that don’t have a public library,” he once noted. “While this might seem like a daunting obstacle . . . Rotary Clubs, Lions, 4-H groups, Boy and Girl Scout troops, churches, schools, businesses, and many other groups and individuals are stepping up to . . . make sure all small towns have . . . free access to books.”
He also hoped they would bring neighbors together. “The reason Little Free Library has been successful,” Bol remarked, “is that people tell us, constantly, ‘I’ve met more neighbors in a week than I’ve met in 30 years.’ ” That’s a recurring sentiment in the 2012 documentary about the movement, A Small Wooden Box. “It’s a way to connect on common ground,” Darren Wang said, “that feels communal and simple and really beautiful. . . . It’s a way of sharing and talking that people haven’t explored I think in the same way in years.”
Dixon Rollins told me that the kids in his neighborhood regularly bike to the little library to pick up books and that he and his wife enjoy decorating the library by season. Pam DuBois said she enjoyed meeting neighbors and that she and her husband have started adding other items to the library, like board games, for people to take. They are also considering moving it to make it more accessible for an elderly woman who uses the library regularly but who has trouble reaching it.
In a world where everything is regulated, Little Free Libraries are wonderfully free of bureaucratic requirements such as permits, registrations (other than the option to register your library with the home organization and receive a charter number and sign), government oversight, required tax filings, and unnecessary licensing—and I hope it stays that way.
We lose something when the face of every act of generosity or service is an employee of a government agency or nonprofit. Little Free Libraries offer people the opportunity to serve others face to face in the places they live.
Both Brooks and Bol have always been reluctant to take much credit for the success of Little Free Libraries. “I think we owe the success of this little social invention to the early adopters and first stewards,” Brooks has said. “They were enthusiastic and selfless about it, not in it for themselves . . . but for the sheer joy and simple generosity” of it.
But their commitment to the idea, especially in the early years when there were only a handful of libraries, and their selfless interest in the people starting them in their neighborhoods was no doubt contagious. In her book, Aldrich remembers how Bol, when he would speak to Little Free Library stewards, would always “pass along the microphone, encouraging people to tell their own stories.” “Every Little Free Library was his favorite Little Free Library,” she said. “He genuinely loved this movement and the people behind it.”
Bol leaves behind a wife and three adult children. He also leaves behind tens of thousands of Little Free Libraries, millions of books shared in neighborhoods around the world, and countless people talking to other people about life around a simple box of books atop a pole. May he rest in peace.