This is the story of a little house.

A schoolhouse. The structure can be easy to miss—it might seem like a mailbox or a bit of decor in someone’s yard. But the iconic “floating schoolhouse” is becoming more popular every day.

Ever seen one? Then you’re a part of the Little Free Library community.

The Little Free Library is an organization and movement that began in Madison, WI in 2009, that has since swept the country (and the international community) with the goal of spreading free books to all. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Little Free Library is grounded in a legacy of promoting literacy. Inspired by the tireless work of entrepreneurs and educators of the early 20th centuries, including Andrew Carnegie and librarian Lutie Stearns (who sought to bring free public libraries to the nation and traveling libraries to Wisconsin, respectively), the founders of Little Free Library have made an organization that reminds us of the intrinsic connection between the personal passion of reading and community spirit.

Sharing books has been a thriving endeavor online for years now, with sites like BookMooch and PaperbackSwap that guide readers toward sustainable ways to manage ever-growing book collections and needs.

These sites also serve as economical alternatives to shopping; even used book prices can add up if you’re not careful. But while these sites help grow a love for literature across borders, they don’t necessarily foster the sense of community and empowerment that libraries can offer—and they’re all online, so it’s difficult to reach a broad array of people without marketing.

That’s what makes these Little Free Libraries so remarkable—in the smallest of spaces, and without the need for a library card, you can cultivate a thriving literary landscape within communities, neighborhoods, and cities. That’s why I want to start one of my own, and be the official steward of this little house of literature. But how exactly do I go about that, as someone living in a condo complex?

Can You Operate a Little Free Library Without a Yard?

The Little Free Library website lays out the steps one-by-one to creating one of your own, detailing everything from acknowledging zoning laws to buying fully-formed library structures. 

But even with their resources, I feel nervous starting my own: I don’t own the property where I live, and I don’t have a front yard space to offer.

To see if there’s something I can do, I talked to a local steward, Heather Moore Sheppard. Sheppard has established not just one but multiple free libraries in neighboring communities—some in residential areas, but also in front of stores. I have frequently visited her Little Free Library #7252 outside the storefront of a Sprouts Farmers Market, and witnessed the number of people who stop to peer into the plexiglass door to see what offerings lie inside.

Heather explained that this Little Free Library in particular is sponsored by her work association, and as a group they approached a number of businesses to see who would be eager to house the house. The process was simple—once they got permission from Sprouts management, they began installation.

She says the same can be done anywhere: an apartment or condo complex, a local market, a business. All it takes is the proper permissions from the property owner.

If you’re concerned about making an installation permanent, then Heather also offers a great solution. Her libraries are in movable bases: large buckets filled with cement, and her association takes care of all the maintenance and upkeep.

According to Heather, “Little Free Libraries generally run themselves with a bit of management. Several of us keep an eye on them and make sure there are books in them… The Sprouts LFL rarely needs stock because it tends to turn over very quickly and people are really generous with donations.” One of the perks of being in a busy commercial area, I imagine.

Heather encourages me to go for it, and establish one in my condo complex. “Creating a Little Free Library is extremely gratifying. To know that we are putting books in the hands of people who might not otherwise have access to them is priceless…to create a platform for sharing is really rewarding.”

She touches on the precise motivations I have, as a book lover and conscientious citizen.

Why Free Books Are So Important

According to DoSomething.Org, one in every four American children grows up without learning to read, and nearly 85% of all juveniles facing trial in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. Illiteracy feeds a cycle of poverty, and is a major hindrance to success in life—how can you succeed in a career if you can’t read? But these terrible realities can’t change by one act alone: it’s going to take years of commitments and actions by dedicated people to help kids access literature.

That’s why establishing and maintaining a Little Free Library is so useful, because of its powerful effect on neighborly spirit and local economy. Having access to books helps encourage kids to read, and to support their friends in reading, too. Heather points out that her Little Free Library has become neighborhood gathering point: “[the library] has allowed us to meet more of our neighbors.”

A sense of camaraderie, respect, and trust develops from building, designing, and painting a library for your community—and in working together to maintain the supply of literature.

And ultimately, like any bibliophile will tell you, there is nothing that compares to the feel of a book in your hands. LFLs are a healthy and sustainable method of inspiring a love of the printed word while motivating people to explore their own love of words elsewhere, whether digital or not.

So once I get permission from the powers-that-be in my apartment complex, I’m going to start working on my own library. If you’re in need of a book, come visit me!

And support the Little Free Library as it works to help children in book deserts gain access to books, through their Kickstarter campaign, that runs from now through May 22, 2015.


Featured photo by Rick Obst via Flickr  | CC-BY-2.0


Alya Hameed recently completed her M.A. from San Diego State University, specializing in Children’s Literature. If she isn’t poring over maps, scavenging for the next epic book series, or getting lost on a hike, you can find her on Twitter (@SimplyAlya) or on her food & literature blog, Coriander Dreams.