More than 150,000 free libraries have been installed across the globe
By Kelly Barbazette
When the Khan family set up their Little Free Library outside of their Gilroy home about two years ago, they hoped to share their love of reading with their neighbors. Not only did passersby start picking up books, something unexpected happened — a community began to take root.
“It feels like a little community that’s kind of developed that we didn’t know would happen,” said Shelby Khan, who lives near Rancho Hills Drive with her husband and three daughters.
The Khans are one of about 20 stewards of Little Free Libraries throughout Gilroy, San Martin, and Morgan Hill. Recognizable by their schoolhouse shape, Little Free Libraries invite passersby to “take a book, share a book.”
At the start of the COVID-19 quarantine in March 2020, the Khan family found themselves at home a lot more and wanting to connect safely with other families living on their street. Avid readers, they noticed more children and grandchildren of the homeowners playing outside and wondered what would happen if they introduced a Little Free Library to their neighborhood.
The Khans sent away for a library kit through Little Free Library, a non-profit group whose mission is to increase people’s access to books worldwide. When it arrived, Shelby Khan got to work painting it along with a bench she built where she hoped neighborhood children would perch to read a book.
“And it’s working. One of the neighbor boys was reading to my three-year-old the other day,” she said.
What surprised her was that it also began to draw grandparents, out taking daily walks with their grandchildren, who stop to peruse the books.
“It’s really sweet. My husband’s desk is right outside this window and he’s seeing this life out front and he’ll call up, ‘There’s new people outside,’” she said.
People will often leave little goodies, including handmade bracelets or flowers for passersby to take. Khan said she’s considering adding a second Little Free Library exclusively for children’s books as more people continue to drop off donations.
“We love our little box and how much closer it has brought us to our neighbors,” she said.
Like the Khans, Sarah Burke of Gilroy set up her Little Free Library outside of her home on Kern Avenue about two years ago.
“My daughter was a very avid reader and we would go through so many books,” Burke said. With the library closed at the time, they helped bring the library to their community, building their Little Free Library themselves.
“It’s wonderful to see the traffic come by. Even when we’re just outside doing our lawn, we love seeing people stop by,” she said.
Through neighbors’ donations, and yard and library sale finds, Burke has kept the Little Free Library well stocked and added a second one a couple months later. The street is well-traveled and Burke regularly sees an elderly gentleman who stops to rest on the bench and a woman who picks up books to give to residents of a nearby senior living community.
“There are various people who we’ve met along the way. We’ve had people pull up in their RV’s and trade books,” Burke said. “We get a variety of people coming through. And it warms your heart to help people a little bit.”
Virginia Horta of Morgan Hill, an avid gardener and a retiree, asked her family for a Little Free Library for her 60th birthday eight years ago after seeing one in San Juan Bautista.
“I painted it and designed it myself and my husband installed it,” she said.
Horta’s Little Free Library rests on Hill Road where a school bus regularly stops and a lot of residents walk and ride their bikes with their families or children.
“It’s just awesome to see people stop and wave and leave books and take books. It’s just sharing a love of reading. A lot of people don’t have access to books. It’s helpful,” she said.
With the help of her children and four grandchildren, Horta keeps her book supply replenished regularly.
“The unexpected thing was also my favorite. I didn’t know it would be so popular,” Horta said. “It just makes me want to smile to see people dropping off books or picking up books. I don’t know if people who are interested in it would be exposed to it if I didn’t have a little library out there. It’s just great.”
Margret Aldrich, director of communications for Little Free Library, said the non-profit group has heard similar stories from other Little Free Library owners who have seen their communities strengthened after installing a library in their neighborhoods.
The number of Little Free Libraries – especially during the start of the pandemic – has increased throughout the country.
“People were looking for a way to connect with their community and still be safe and Little Free Libraries helped fill that gap,” Aldrich said.
Between 2012, when Little Free Library was established, and March 2020 there were 100,000 Little Free Libraries worldwide. From March 2020 to June of this year, Little Free Libraries increased by 50,000, with the non-profit group celebrating its 150,000th Little Free Library in June.
“That’s much a quicker increase than we have seen in the past,” Aldrich said. “People really did see Little Free Libraries as a beacon of hope in a really dark time. I know when I see a Little Free Library, I feel happy. I feel like it’s a community that cares. I also feel connected even if I never meet the steward of that Little Free Library.”
Todd Bol built the first Little Free Library in Hudson, WI, in 2009 in honor of his mother, a school teacher and lifelong reader. His neighbors began exchanging books and having conversations and the school house-shaped box filled with books became “a neighborhood water cooler,” Aldrich said.
Bol wanted to share this idea with the rest of the world and he and his friend Rick Brooks started sharing Little Free Libraries. The non-profit group was established in 2012 in Hudson, WI. The headquarters will move to St. Paul, MN, this summer. Bol died in 2018.
“I’m really happy his legacy continues to grow,” Aldrich said.
Over the past 20 years, the non-profit group has expanded its mission to getting books into the hands of every reader. There are Little Free Libraries in 115 countries and seven continents.
It has added new programs, including the Impact Library program, which provides no-cost Little Free Library book exchanges to communities where books are scarce. It has granted more than 1,500 libraries to underserved communities in the U.S. and Canada. The sale of Little Free Libraries and private donations support this program.
Read in Color is a newer initiative that brings diverse books, providing perspectives on racism and social justice as well as celebrating BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized voices, to Little Free Libraries around the world. So far, this program has reached more than 100 Little Free Libraries and distributed more than 30,000 diverse books.
The Khans are members of this program and were sent a starter box of books written by diverse authors and/or including diverse main characters. Shelby Khan said she adds these books to their Little Free Library throughout the year, including during Black History Month, Pride Month, and Women’s History Month.
“We think representation is really important,” Khan said. “So, we take a specific initiative and effort to make sure we provide books that show representation.”
Asked why Little Free Libraries strike a chord with so many people, Aldrich responded, “I think it’s a love of reading and wanting to share that love of reading and wanting to feel connected with people and wanting to build community.”
Kelly Barbazette, a former journalist for Bay Area newspapers, is a freelance writer. She lives in Gilroy with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at [email protected].