Arts & Entertainment

Little Libraries with a Big Impact

Stewards of the Flathead’s Little Free Libraries reflect on their significance

Perhaps you’ve come across one while wandering down a street in your neighborhood, or on vacation in a different state, or driving along a rural road. They appear out of nowhere: miniature house-shaped structures sitting atop wooden posts, with glass doors that reveal shelves stocked with books.

The first Little Free Library that Gail Steele saw in her Kalispell neighborhood had a bench erected next to it so that passersby could sit down and peruse the books. There was even a bowl of water set out for dogs.

“I thought to myself, ‘That’s really hospitable,’” Steele says. “It really expressed the idea of generosity.”

Steele found two books inside the library that she’d been meaning to read. She took them home with her and told her family, “I want a Little Free Library in front of our house.”

The concept originated with Todd Bol of Wisconsin, who in 2009 built a tiny wooden schoolhouse, filled it with books and placed it on a post in his front yard. The project was a tribute to his mother, a teacher who had always emphasized the importance of reading and of reading accessibility.

When Rick Brooks of the University of Wisconsin–Madison happened upon Bol’s schoolhouse, he immediately realized its potential to foster community and spark social change. Brooks and Bol set a goal of creating 2,508 Little Free Libraries — the number of free public libraries that turn-of-the-20th century philanthropist Andrew Carnegie had aimed to establish — by the end of 2013. They surpassed that total in 2012.

As of November 2016, the organization had more than 50,000 registered Little Free Libraries in all 50 states and more than 70 countries, all of which are built and operated on a volunteer basis.

According to the world map of Little Free Libraries online, there are 11 in Kalispell, five in Whitefish and three in Bigfork, although there are others that are unregistered.

Both Steele and Sarah Ericson of Whitefish received their Little Free Libraries as presents.

Steele’s brother, a woodworker, surprised her on Christmas with a little wooden library in the shape of her house.

Ericson, who describes herself as “a total word nerd,” relates that each time she saw a Little Free Library, she would tell her husband how much she wanted one. On her birthday last year, he took her to the garage, where he had been conducting “a secret construction project,” and presented her with a little library.

Both of these libraries were ultimately gifts for the entire community.

“My folks gave me the gift of reading and of books, and I get to pass that on,” Steele says. “It’s hugely important for me to be part of that cycle.”

“I grew up seven blocks from here, went to school two blocks from here, and the library I went to as a child is four blocks from here,” she continues. “So having my own Little Free Library here embodies the circle of my life and education and reading, while also expanding beyond it.”

Steele calls it the Silver Linings Library, partially because she’s an optimist, partially because the interior is painted silver to reflect light and make the space appear open and inviting.

“Books also have a ‘silver-linings’ quality about them because you don’t know what’s inside by just looking at the cover,” she adds. “There’s always something unexpected about them.”

Little Free Libraries often lead to unforeseen discoveries and interactions.

“Right now there’s a pair of glasses in my library that someone donated,” says Ericson, “and people leave bookmarks and all sorts of other reading-related materials.”

One day Carol Cole, a retired elementary school teacher, looked out her window and saw a mother reading aloud to her children on the bench next to Cole’s schoolhouse-themed Little Free Library in Bigfork.

“It doesn’t get better than that,” Cole said in an email. “I stepped out on my deck to say hello and [the mother] said her daughter had just donated her favorite book to the library, but wanted to hear it one more time before she let go.”

For Shelley Jo Isaak of Kalispell, the libraries cultivate a welcoming, come-as-you-are atmosphere that is increasingly rare.

“Today’s world has a lot of boundaries,” she says. “It’s not common for people to invite others in anymore.”

In 2012, Isaak and her husband purchased a piece of land next to their home and transformed it into a beautiful, welcoming park that they call the Back Back, complete with a pizza oven and a Little Free Library perched on the gate.

“Reading is a great way for people to learn about the world and themselves,” Isaak says. “When we were creating the park, I kept thinking, ‘I want that in my community.’”

Little Free Libraries are unassuming sites to obtain books, equally accessible to readers of all stripes.

“As awesome as libraries are, they can be intimidating to beginning readers,” Ericson says. “The literary community can come off as highbrow.”

“Any time you can get books in front of people without pretense,” she adds, “it’s a good thing.”

Steele echoes that sentiment: “Little Free Libraries are effective because people don’t have to pay or go someplace special. They’re just wonderful surprises.”

All four women note that their little libraries are frequently used. Steele’s stock of books turns over every three to four weeks, and the children’s section is especially popular.

The women add books to their libraries every now and then, but the shelves are generally filled by neighbors or others who happen upon them.

“The beautiful thing is you can take a book from somewhere and then leave it somewhere else,” says Ericson, who just obtained a book from a Little Free Library in Milwaukee. “It’s great for travelers.”

“I love thinking of the books in my library streaming into the world and continually passing hands,” Steele says.

But Steele considers Little Free Library’s ultimate goal to be simpler than that.

“If all that ever happened was one kid took one book,” she says, “that’s the whole reason for it right there.”