• Linda Borromeo

The Big Idea of the Little Free Library

An Accidental Discovery

When a restaurant patron repeatedly rejected his fried potatoes, saying they were too thick and not crispy enough, the chef became hot under his collar. Finally reaching the end of his patience, the enraged chef sliced potatoes to a razor point and then fried the results until they were stone-hard. After that, he salted them heavily.

Instead of making a point with the customer, the formerly disgruntled diner loved them. On that summer day in 1853, according to legend, Chef George Crum invented the potato chip.

Another Unusual Beginning

The Little Free Library movement has a surprising beginning as well.

The architect of the first Little Free Library, as a child, looked at books the same way you might face a dentist holding a drill. For young Todd Bol, books could be strangers and enemies, not friends. With "dyslexic leanings," Bol struggled to read, according to The Little Free Library Book.

With those early challenges, promoting the love of reading came as a surprise when Bol later faced a crisis in his life.

The One-Room Schoolhouse

In 2009, Bol found himself laid off from his dream career. Reeling from the loss of what he'd wanted to accomplish, and in his midfifties, Bol struggled to find a new direction. He began thinking about building an office in his garage as part of the new start. After removing the venerable 1920s garage door, he wanted to reuse the old wood in a meaningful way.

"First Little Free Library" by Lisa Colon DeLay is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Bol decided to build a small, one-room schoolhouse model in honor of his mother. An avid reader and devoted schoolteacher, she'd shown by example all that reading could mean in the life of a child and an adult. Because of his mother's legacy as a teacher and her love of reading, he chose to fill the little schoolhouse with books.

Neighbors loved the little schoolhouse mounted on a post in front of Todd and Susan Bol's Wisconsin home. Spurred on by their positive comments, Bol built six new little libraries with salvaged barn wood.

As the idea began to grow, Bol teamed with Rick Brooks to create more small neighborhood libraries. They soon agreed on an ambitious goal: to encourage the building of 2,51o little libraries all over the world.

Why 2,510? That amount would top by one the number of public libraries built by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

The Connection with Carnegie

Believing that reading had paved the way to his big dreams—from a low-paid mill worker to a leading steel magnate—Carnegie used his vast fortune to build libraries.

Between 1883 and 1929, Carnegie financed the building of 2,509 public libraries in the United States and in countries all over the world, including the Caribbean, Fiji, Canada and in Europe. He felt the door to free learning should be open to all ages, economic classes and ethnic heritages.

In August of 2012, the goal to honor Carnegie by building 2,510 Little Free Libraries was reached, over a year before the target date.

The Impact of Little Free Libraries

There are now over 50,000 Little Free Libraries in more than 70 countries, including the United States, Iceland, China, Ghana, Italy, Australia and Korea.

"Little free library, Zarasai, Lithuania" by Vilensija is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Each new Little Free Library has its own personality. Founders Todd Bol and Rick Brooks give the credit to the stewards of these Little Free Libraries, those who have created a new wave of folk art in the innovative designs of the small homes for books.

All those involved have created places where neighbors can gather to talk, exchange books and ideas, and build a more positive community with the motto, Take a Book ~ Return a Book.

From a small and surprising beginning, the Little Free Library has become a new home for friendship and the love of reading.

Photo: Little Free Library in Azusa, CA. Courtesy of the Little Free Library. Used with permission.

"The only thing that you absolutely have to know is the location of the library."

Albert Einstein

When I recently discovered a new Little Free Library in my forested neighborhood and shared it with my Newsletter readers...

...I realized I had no idea how LFLs began. Now, knowing the story behind them, it will be even more meaningful and beguiling to spot one on a snowy (or sunny) walk in my neighborhood.

Helpful References:

Aldrich, Margret. The Little Free Library Book. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 2015. Print.

Little Free Library. n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

Weller, Chris. "16 Accidental Inventions That Changed the World." Business Insider. Business Insider, 22 June 2016. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

Linda Borromeo remembers practicing for hours to print her name—qualifying for her first library card at age three. She still finds it difficult to pass by any library. Linda is the author of Mystery Shores, a novel of adventure on a misty lighthouse island, for ages 10 and up.

In my stories, you'll find islands, mystery, friendship and danger. 

My novel, Mystery Shores, is set on a lighthouse island filled with secrets. 

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