Micro Libraries: Promoting literacy on a street corner near you

From the Washington Times Communities

Little Free Library

Little Free Library (Photo credit: Lulu Hoeller)

WASHINGTON DC September 16, 2012 –Recently American public libraries have been closing or facing deep budget cuts.  At the same time, micro libraries have been popping up around the country.  Some are in the shape of a birdhouse or doghouse, some in the shape if a traditional English phone booth.  Some have locks; some are open and free.  They are not all the same but they all have a common cause of increasing literacy, sharing the love of books, and building a strong community.

Community, specialized, and mobile libraries are nothing new.  There are many kinds of private, semi-private, and unusual libraries around the world, including a portable library known as Luis Soriano’s Biblioburro, a donkey which carries books to children in remote Colombian villages or Argentinean Raul Lemesoff’s Weapon of Mass Instruction, built out of a 1970’s tank.  Some are temporary, like IKEA’s 2010 Bondi Beach Outdoor Bookcase and The UNI Project.

These private or semi-private libraries also have different characters and philosophies.  The People’s Library at Zucotti Park became one lasting symbol of the Occupy Movement.  There is also the Reanimation Library in Brooklyn, dedicated to making rare, out of circulation, and out of print books available to writers, artists, students, and the public in general.  There is even the Brooklyn Art Library, an organization that receives, catalogues, and lends sketchbooks submitted by artists.

On a smaller scale and very much inspired by the DIY movement, micro libraries, birdhouse libraries, corner libraries, and little libraries have begun to pop un in cities and neighborhoods around the country, lead by movements like Little Free Library and Corner Libraries.


The “Birdhouse” Library

Micro libraries come in all shapes and sizes.  They differ in their scope, material, and philosophy.  Yet they all share one characteristic, they are small and free to everyone in the community.

Micro libraries don’t have to contain only books, and the books don’t even have to be commercially printed.  The library can include any type of material from regular books to self- published works, to photocopied ‘zines.  The purpose of a neighborhood micro library is to share ideas and encourage alternative and private publishing.  These “birdhouse libraries” can potentially offer material not available in traditional public libraries.  They also offer a way to communicate and exchange ideas.  Users can donate books and write their comments in them to the next reader, or share CDs and DVDs.

As neighborhoods adopt corner libraries, these inevitably acquire local flavor, from their content to their appearance. The personal character of these libraries result in no collection being the same and collections are continually refreshed.  Many libraries are built by a person or group of amateur builders within the neighborhood, while others can be purchased.  Several are made with reclaimed or local materials.  While the majority of libraries are essentially a little box on a post with a pitched roof, many are quite unique.  There is a great collection of pictures of little libraries in the Neighborhood Library Builder’s Guild (NLBG)’s Facebook page.

"Little Free Library" on 16th Ave S.

“Little Free Library” on 16th Ave S. (Photo credit: litlnemo)

Not a replacement for a traditional public library

Even though these kinds of libraries are usually well received, there are those who question whether calling them libraries actually dilutes the idea of a “library.”

Many micro librarians and supporters disagree with this notion.  It is clear that these little libraries are not a “library” in the strict sense of the word, but an ancillary service. As Shannon Mattern says in her essayMarginalia: Little Libraries in the Urban Margins, its not a question of competition with public libraries because these DIY libraries cannot be expected to provide the services and resources of a public library system.

Public libraries perform crucial cultural, social, and civic functions that could never be replaced by even the most comprehensive network or small, specialized, or communal libraries.  For one thing, public libraries supply and preserve information in multiple mediums and formats.  However, public libraries are not merely repositories of data.  They also offer Internet access, staff members help adults with access to information and students in research projects, hold free classes on a variety of subjects, and in smaller towns perform other basic services like functioning as a post office or voter registration center.  Libraries also provide a space where the community can come together to socialize and discuss issues important to the community.

The last thing most micro library supporters want is to sustain the idea that libraries do not need public funding and can survive on donations and volunteers.   Instead, most micro librarians see these pop-up libraries as supplementary to the public library system, and as artistic and community expressions.

“Certainly we can’t allow our propensity to romanticize the nimble and provisional, and to admire the ingenuity of ‘pop up’ culture, to blind us to the fact that operating a library is a logistically complicated endeavor that requires significant infrastructure and professional expertise — and public support,” says Shannon Mattern in her essay Marginalia: Little Libraries in the Urban Margins.

Instead many micro librarians suggest these corner libraries are a modern version of the book swap.

Silverlake's Little Free Library

Silverlake’s Little Free Library (Photo credit: Michael R Perry)

Getting Down to it

The Little Free Library web page has an Interactive Map with locations around the US.

It seems like starting a birdhouse library in your neighborhood can be fun.  Little Free Library has a complete how-to webpage on how to build a basic resilient library, as well as a Builder’s Guild page on Facebook.  The website discusses basic building and location considerations as well as weatherproofing and getting the community involved.

Writing this article inspired me to explore whether a birdhouse library would be possible in my neighborhood in Washington DC.  I started a website for it at: http://dupontlittlelibrary.wordpress.com.  I’m hoping my neighbors will join in and will update our progress on the website.  Stay tuned!