Free little libraries gain popularity in Kalamazoo

Apr 22, 2013

Credit Ted Yoakum

At first glance, the little wooden boxes that have been popping in lawns across the city may look like giant mailboxes or birdhouses. However, they contain neither letters nor animals, but books. Known as Little Free Libraries, people are encouraged to take, and leave, books and magazines from the boxes’ shelves, with no strings attached. 

Typically holding no more than a couple dozen titles, these tiny libraries are placed in the front yards of homes, churches, schools and community centers. Born in the Madison area of Wisconsin in 2009, the concept has spread throughout the globe over the past four years. The libraries began to pop-up here in Southwest Michigan last fall, after local teenager Hannah Lane-Davies and her mother, Elizabeth, brought the idea to Kalamazoo.

“I first saw a little free library in St. Paul,” Lane-Davies said. “I was on a walk with my mom, and we were just running when we saw this little box on a stick and we were like, ‘what is this?’ We opened it and it had books in it. So we immediately went home and researched it. Within 24 hours we totally decided that we were doing it.”

Hannah and her parents designed and constructed their own version of library for their home, located in the Westnedge Hill neighborhood. Since then, Hannah has worked to spread the wooden boxes to other homes in the city, with two families already placing libraries on their front lawns. Nine other residents and businesses are establishing their own little free libraries over the next few months as well, including one in Kazoo School.

“I originally wanted to get 10, but now we’re already up to 13 planned and built,” Lane-Davies said. “The response of the community has been overwhelmingly positive. We were amazed; it’s been really exciting to watch.”

For Little Free Library founder Todd Bol, the rapid growth of the libraries in Kalamazoo isn’t a surprise. Bol crafted the first little library in memory of his mother, to share her love of reading with the greater community.

“I saw a bunch of people go by the little free library and get excited about it,” Bol said. “I’ve told the tale a thousand times over, that it reminded of when people see a puppy. Their voices pitched high, they got excited, they loved it. Men, women, children, people in their 80s. It was all ages, all demographics.”

Its success prompted Bol and his friend Richard Brooks to start the Little Free Library non-profit organization, which helps prospective stewards set up their own libraries. Since 2009, over 5,000 Little Free Libraries have been registered with the organization, from all over the world. That’s almost double the number of libraries millionaire industrialist Andrew Carnegie helped create in the early 20th century.

Bol says that the libraries’ success is due to society’s love for literature and their desire to connect with their neighbors. For local resident Marie Lee and her family, this same combination is what attracted her to the idea.

“Owning a magazine, we have a vested interest in the written word, seeing hardcover and soft-cover books surviving in a digital age,” Lee said. “I think it’s really important to spread the love of reading. We also only moved into this house two years ago, and we’ve some people but not everybody, so it’s a nice way of getting to know people who walk.”

Lee was introduced the Little Free Library after interviewing Hannah Lane-Davies for her publication, Encore Magazine. The teen encouraged Lee to install one of the libraries she and her father built in the publisher’s residence on Bronson Boulevard. Within a day putting it up, Lee and her son Michael said they found that their neighbors were already placing books inside the little box.

“A friend of mine works for the KPS libraries, and they withdrawal a lot of books, and they have all these extra books,” Lee said. “So she gave a bunch to me for the library, which was really nice. So we have some retired library books in there. We’ve actually gotten KPS library books returned to us, so we took those back down.”

With warmer weather on the horizon, both the Lee-Davies and the Lee families said they expect to see more visitors stopping by their front lawns. With the additional libraries going up in the coming weeks, there should be no shortage of material for local book lovers to find this summer.