activism books

What I learned from hosting a Little Free Library

When my family moved to Madagascar when I was little, we sent our belongings in a shipping container. It arrived a few months after we did, with lots of boxes of books. Since books weren’t readily available in the country, let alone in English, this was basically what we had to go on for the next decade. In time, I read most of our stock – all the children’s books, and then I started on my parents’ books. Dad’s military history and theology. Mum’s classic novels. The fact that I was reading Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward aged about 11 is a decent indicator of how short of reading material I had become.

Of course, it did me no harm at all to read beyond the children’s section so early. I learned the power of words, what good writing looked like, and what you could do with language. It also made me hungry for new things to read, new authors and genres. It gave me a deeply felt appreciation for books.

Now living in a consumer society where books are cheap and abundant, certainly if you’re not fussy about secondhand copies, I could easily end up in a house full to the ceiling with my personal collection. As it is, only one or two rooms have shelves that reach the ceiling and I try to be more outward looking in my book obsession. That involves sharing and lending books, reviewing things that I have appreciated, and hosting an online bookshop for recommendations. And perhaps most importantly for breaking the temptation to hoard, I give books away.

I have various avenues for giving away books, but the one I wanted to write about today is the Little Free Library on the driveway. Little Free Libraries is a campaign that I came across in 2015 and wrote about on the blog. They are mainly book-sharing boxes by people’s homes, often designed to look like miniature buildings. There are over 125,000 of them around the world, in over a hundred countries.

It took me a few years to get around to setting one up myself. What prompted me to get on with it was the lockdown in 2020, when actual libraries and bookshops closed. I created a ‘little lockdown library’ on the driveway for the benefit of friends and neighbours. The first iteration was in a little wooden cabinet. It lasted a few weeks before someone stole it, cabinet included.

Version two was in bread crates, with friendly signs about maybe not stealing it. I had to remember to run out and bring it in if it started to rain. After that I paused to build something more permanent. The latest version is made from scrap wood found in the fly-tipped alley behind my house, and leftover felt from when the roof blew off my neighbour’s shed. It’s custom-built and weather-proof, with a base full of bricks to thwart anyone tempted to heft it into a passing car. I’m sure someone will give it a kicking at some point, and we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Like all Little Free Libraries, these things run on trust. Personally, I think a sharing resource like this helps to build the trust you will depend on for its safety, so I’m prepared to live with the risk. I can see how it makes a difference to the street. It’s a gesture of friendship towards strangers. It makes the street more welcoming. There’s something here for you.

That builds community too. I regularly stop to talk to people out the front, when taking out the bins or on my way in or out. It’s a talking point, and conversations start up spontaneously. These aren’t awkward English conversations about the weather either, because you instantly have something to talk about, and I am always curious about what people read anyway. I ask if people have found anything they like, what their favourites are, and I try to source them in future.

How does it work, exactly? Basically, I put books in and people take them. Sometimes they come back, sometimes they don’t. People donate books, sometimes big bags of them, of varying quality and interest. I keep a stack inside the front door and I replenish the stock, swap things around to keep it fresh. I keep a mix of children and adult books, and I have kids on the school run who are regular visitors.

I have learned more about what my neighbourhood reads. Crime fiction and thrillers are popular. My literary fiction tends to stick around. Books about football and Minecraft go quickly. A donated copy of Fifty Shades of Grey was gone again the same afternoon. Knowing more about what people like, I browse charity shops or the library sale for things my neighbours would appreciate. I look out for authors from Poland, Nigeria or Pakistan, so that people on my street know that the library is for them too, and not just for English white folks like me.

There are of course lots of ways to share books. Cafes, waiting rooms or even supermarkets sometimes have a book swapping shelf. I used Bookmooch.com and bookcrossing when they were more active a few years ago. I’m a fan of the book fairies, and occasionally release books into the wild with them. The official Little Free Library organisation is a non-profit based in the States, and I’ve registered my library with them so that it can be found on their global map. That’s optional, and I also have less official book swapping boxes at a church, and at my favourite local cafe, as part of my Little Green Library idea. I’m prepping another one for a nearby vegan cafe.

If books aren’t really your thing, there are other projects that can turn a driveway, front garden or even a front door into a more friendly public space. A Dutch group called the Bench Collective encourages people to place benches at the front of their house. If you have an electric car, you can share a charge point through the Co-Charger network. You could host a swapping shelf for toys, or a community larder, or share plants and seedlings. Window boxes or attractive front gardens benefit your neighbours and passers-by more than they do the residents of the house, who are more likely to be out the back.

All these little things can create positive interactions on your street, and make it a more welcoming place.

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