Stearns: Little Libraries

Jan 26, 2015

The Little Free Library, no bigger than a breadbox and perched on a post outside Town Hall, was pretty well stocked the day I peered inside.

There for the taking was a novel by John Updike, a copy of Gossip Girl, and some children’s stories. The shelves were so full, in fact, there wasn’t much room for books I intended to donate.

Of course, Little Free Libraries are not receptacles for discarded books. “Take one, leave one,” say the instructions. No library cards, no due dates: just a rotating collection refined by the vagaries of chance.

The idea seems improbable in a distracted digital age. A miniature lending library on a public street, next to a bus stop, in a park? Yet thousands have popped up all over the world — ever since Tod Bol of Hudson, Wis., built a model of a one-room schoolhouse and filled it with books as a tribute to his mother, a schoolteacher. Friends and neighbors gathered ’round. He built a few more, and a movement was born. That was six years ago. Today there are 28 little libraries registered in Vermont, 16 in New Hampshire and more than 22,000 worldwide.

Quaint and compact, these handcrafted structures draw inspiration from a bygone era, when life seemed simpler, slower. But nostalgia doesn’t entirely explain their appeal in communities as different as Bennington, Vt., and Bihar, India.

Perhaps the movement springs from a yearning to counter what cultural critic Leon Wieseltier calls the “ideology of digitality.” Little libraries, and the serendipitous discoveries they allow, defy a world over-awed by algorithms, apps and data presuming to tell you, “If you like this, then you’ll like that.” Intellectual curiosity can’t be commodified or satisfied solely by a search engine.

At the same time, little libraries are trending like a hashtag on Twitter because they tap into enthusiasm for the touted sharing economy. Out goes the middleman, whether sharing a ride, a house or a good read. Little libraries aren’t likely to put big libraries out of business, but they just might disrupt a few preoccupied pedestrians, forcing them to look up from their cellphones long enough to take a book they didn’t know they wanted.

The next time I pass Hanover’s little library, I plan to leave my copy of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Even if Americans have turned away from clubs, churches and other institutions that once bound us together, as author Robert Putnam argues, we are finding unexpected ways to connect — not all of them mediated by technology.