How Little Free Libraries Came to Be

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How does such a little idea grow to be such a worldwide success?
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“The Little Free Library Book,” by Margret Aldrich, is the story of some of the most charming libraries, as told through multiple accounts of the growing movement.

Have you stumbled across a Little Free Library in your neighborhood? In The Little Free Library Book(Coffee House Press, 2015), author Margret Aldrich shares the information she gathered from 70 Little Free Library stewards from Uganda to India, Georgia to California, and shares the stories of Little Free Libraries promoting literacy in underserved communities and bringing neighbors together. This excerpt, which shares how Todd Bol came up with the idea for a little free library in Hudson, Wisconsin, is from Chapter 2, “Get Started.”

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The Beginning of Little Free Libraries

The best ideas can come to us at the most unexpected times, swimming to the surface unbidden but welcome. For Todd Bol, the first Little Free Library was one of those charmed ideas, triggered by a lost job, a cross-country road trip, and a garage sale.

Bol has an unflappable entrepreneurial spirit and an idea generator that runs on overdrive: for every three good ideas he has, he’s leaving thirty on the table. But when he was laid off in 2009 from the company he started with Global Scholarship Alliance, he was in his midfifties and not sure what to do next. “I was devastated when they closed down the Wisconsin office, which I thought was my life’s dream and the accumulation of everything for me careerwise,” he says.

 Bol’s wife, Susan, suggested that he go away for a while to clear his head, so he packed his bags and traveled around the country for a month. “It was a good, soul-searching thing to do,” he says, “kind of a modern-day version of Easy Rider—except in a minivan.”

After he returned home, Bol got to work turning his garage into an office, putting in windows and removing a vintage 1920s garage door. He had a talent for finding new uses for old objects and thought the wood was too nice to get rid of—he wanted to do something respectful with it. After staring at the door for a few months, Bol decided to build a model one-room schoolhouse in honor of his mother, June Bol, a former teacher and a lifelong reader. As he thought about his mom during the construction process, he said to himself, “Maybe we’ll put books in it.”

Then on a Saturday in May 2010 came the garage sale that launched a thou­sand Libraries: the Bols hosted a sale in their front yard, and Todd mounted the schoolhouse full of hardcovers and paperbacks on a post. It was the first Little Free Library, though it wasn’t called that yet. As the day went on, neighbor after neighbor was drawn to the Library, stopping to admire it, ask about it, buzz around it, browse through it, and generally get excited about it.

“When I saw how people responded to the Little Free Library, my next question was: Would more people respond to it? Is this just a fluke of nature? Is it something in the air? Is it springtime?” Todd wondered. “As with most ideas, when you think you’ve got a decent one, what you have to say to your­self is, ‘How do I test this out?’”

An older neighbor who liked the schoolhouse Library tipped Bol off to an old barn that had been knocked over by a tornado—the barn wood would be good material for more Libraries. Bol built another half dozen. Library Number Two started out in a friend’s garden, then traveled to a gallery called Absolutely Art in Madison, Wisconsin, with the help of Rick Brooks, whom Bol had got­ten to know after hearing him speak on community sustainability practices. They staked a few more Libraries in Madison, but by that winter had sold only one. After another sale or two, they decided to start planting seeds by giving them away. Then Brooks’s son encouraged them to apply for a grant from the Chicago Awesome Foundation. Through that program, they were awarded one thousand dollars to establish six more Libraries and were fea­tured on Illinois public radio. The real boosts came from an article published in Wisconsin Journal and a guest appearance on Jean Feraca’s Wisconsin public radio show Here on Earth.

“At that point, we were struggling,” Bol says. “But the day after the show, when I was driving to see our Amish carpenter, Henry, and I stopped on the side of the road to read my map, a guy knocked on my window. I thought, Uh-oh, what’d I do, but when I rolled down the window, he said ‘Jean Feraca?’ I said, ‘No, I’m Todd Bol.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no—I heard you on Jean Feraca.’ I had a Little Free Library loaded on my trailer, so I was easy to identify. Then I stopped at the bank, and an eighty-year-old man waved at me and said, ‘Jean Feraca!’” Within another month or two, Little Free Libraries were featured in USAToday and then on NBC Nightly News.

Soon after, Bol and Brooks started getting more and more requests from all over the world from people who wanted a Little Library of their own, and they established Little Free Library as a nonprofit organization. But the project remained—and still is—a grassroots effort in the spirit of the original Little Library. “The funny part is,” Todd says, “up until November 2012, I was build­ing Libraries on my deck and staining them in my shed where my freezer is, in a teeny six-by-six space. I got a kick out of sending Libraries and signs to dif­ferent countries knowing that I was doing it with a twenty-dollar garage sale saw on my back deck in Wisconsin.” (Now the organization has office and workspace in Hudson. It’s home to a sturdy wooden conference table hand-built by Bol, Little Free Libraries in various stages of construction, and an entire room devoted to decorative embellishments.)

Bol began getting letters and e-mails thanking him for starting Little Free Library. One fan told him that, at Halloween, the kids on her street were more excited by her Library than they were about candy. Another steward told him, “Little Free Libraries are better than the moon.”

Though he recognizes the impact that Little Free Libraries have, Bol gives all the credit to the stewards who start up Libraries in their neighborhoods. And rather than the Wizard of Oz, he compares himself to Dorothy—all he did, he says, was stumble on the Tin Man and apply a shot of oil to get him mov­ing. “I know this is an established thing that has touched many people’s hearts, and the world is a better place for it, but it’s because of the people in the com­munities,” Bol says. “I was just fortunate to be able to show them an option.”

He encourages new stewards to keep the movement going and advocates building from recycled materials, being creative with what you have, connect­ing with people, and having a good time in the process. “It’s the easiest thing in the world to get started,” he says. “If you don’t have the money to buy one from us, start talking to your neighbors. I know a woman in Hawaii who walked down to her local Home Depot and explained what a Little Free Library was, and they built one for her. And another neighbor brought it from Home Depot to her house, and another man put it up for her. It’s a natural thing to bring communities together.”

The first Little Free Library—that red schoolhouse in Bol’s front yard—is still there, and it still gets regular visitors. Now it has a partner: a Library built in honor of his dad made from family relics like his great-grandma’s quilting rack, a piece of an old sleigh, and a music box that his mother gave his father more than fifty years ago, cleverly rigged to play “The Impossible Dream” every time someone opens the Library’s door. When the time comes, the Wisconsin Historical Society hopes to preserve his mom’s schoolhouse Library in their archive.

“When my mom died, I gave everyone at the funeral a necklace that said, ‘June A. Bol, a dancing spirit, 1927–’ and the premise was an old saying that you never die until all that you’ve touched has passed away,” Bol says. “What’s really cool is that my mom inspired this, and now she’s dancing all over the place, inspiring people all around the world.”

“Little Free Libraries are better than the moon.”  —Anonymous Little Free Library Fan

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Little Free Library Book, by Margret Aldrich and published by Coffee House Press, 2015.

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