Free Libraries Do More Than Inspire the Next Generation of Bibliophiles
When I was a child, while other kids salivated over the thought of a shiny new bicycle or the supple leather of a catcher’s mitt, I dreamed of books. Ink-filled pages were my drug of choice and libraries my cathedrals. Nothing, it seemed, could pry my nose out of a good book.
After enduring an academic year like no other, I fear that thoughts of books now bring something else to mind for today’s children — COVID-19. The shadow of the pandemic is likely to linger for quite some time, particularly over our schools. Coupled with the extended closure of local museums, zoos and summer enrichment programs, educational opportunities for children have significantly winnowed during this past year. But despite these challenges, Merrimack Valley is ripe with other possibilities, including one hiding in plain sight.
During a recent late-night walk, I discovered a miniature library box in the middle of my suburban neighborhood. Emblazoned with the motto “Building Community, Sparking Creativity, Inspiring Readers,” the box was part of the Little Free Library initiative (LittleFreeLibrary.org), an exchange program that allows readers to share books at no cost. Curiosity piqued, I opened the tiny glass door and began to sift through the collection. That was all it took. I was hooked.
The next day I set out to locate every LFL in my adopted hometown of Andover. I was pleased to discover my environs were awash in library boxes, 10 in total. While most were built from kits provided by the LFL program, what they lacked in architectural originality they surely made up for in content.
My first stop was at a box located beside the front door of a preschool. Its collection included a copy of the children’s classic “Sarah, Plain and Tall” along with two unopened sleeves of saltine crackers, clearly on point with the targeted audience. My next box was sequestered away on a secluded loop, well off the beaten path. Underneath the tiny shingled roof were favorites like Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love” and Daniel James Brown’s epic “The Boys in the Boat.” A small bench had been placed in the nearby shade, providing a comfortable spot to sit and browse.
Then I made my way to the downtown collection, located adjacent to the Andover Center for History and Culture. Apropos, it held some “artifacts” from days gone by, most notably some old CDs by Bobby Darin and Sammy Davis Jr. A bit schmaltzy perhaps, but still appreciated by this visitor.
Each subsequent stop provided its own delightful and quirky assortment. A box just up the road from the intersection of routes 28 and 125 included Spanish translations of the Harry Potter series and “Antes de ser libres” by Julia Alvarez, famed Abbot Academy graduate. A home sporting a rainbow flag had an equally colorful box out front. Although the sides had been decorated with a set of whimsical animal paintings, the offerings inside were decidedly more serious. Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and New York Times bestseller “The Red Bandanna” were among the choices. I was pleased to see such diverse offerings existed inside the town’s boundaries. There really was something for everyone.
The contents of the box vicinal to our local college included “Jane Eyre” and “The Great Gatsby,” in keeping with the neighborhood’s more academic flavor. Around the corner, I discovered a weather-beaten case. A sturdy twig doubled as its door handle. Giving it a gentle tug, I was rewarded with a collection that included “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and the tween favorite “Twilight.” Then it was on to the other side of town. Upon arriving at my next stop, I was met by a headless wooden post. The attached note indicated the library had been removed for repair. Spinning on my heels, I headed to the last box on my list. Its exterior was covered with vibrant yellow and purple polka dots. Its playful flavor mirrored its collection, a treasure trove of children’s books. The binding of “Pippi Longstocking” was front and center. As a fellow ginger, I took particular delight in knowing the zany and clever Pippi stood ready to inspire Andover’s next generation of young girls.
What initially began as a fact-finding mission turned into something quite different. By the end of the afternoon, I had collected an armful of books. For a bibliophile like me, it was akin to shooting fish in a barrel.
Since 2009, the Little Free Library project has supplied over 165 million books to readers of every persuasion. More than 100,000 library boxes are now scattered across all 50 states and over 100 countries. Initially created by Todd Bol, an entrepreneur and former schoolteacher, as a tribute to his mother, the Little Free Library movement has inspired countless others to build their own diminutive athenaeums, including our own neighbors. Bol passed away in 2018 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 62.
Here in the Merrimack Valley, about 90 boxes are spread across our 21 cities and towns. Twenty percent of these were constructed during this past academic year, an indication of the creative spirit and ingenuity of the region. Only two communities, Lawrence and Merrimac, are currently without an LFL collection. With blueprints, building tips and advice on proper installation readily available on the LFL website, expanding the literacy footprint here in the Valley is just a click away.
The pandemic has reminded us of the dangers posed by interruptions in learning. With summer upon us, building a neighborhood library box offers each of us a chance to enrich educational opportunities for everyone.
So dust off your tool belt. Round up the folks from your book club, your church, your office, even your own family, and let your artistic juices flow. After all, there’s nothing like a good book.