Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Little Free Libraries: An Update on Three Specific Installations

I have not written about these Little Free Libraries here, but am doing so in order to document them and share - in one spot - information about them.

In 2011, I saw something about little houses called “little free libraries'' and wondered on Twitter if that concept could work in Syracuse, NY. From that tweet arose a collaboration between the Syracuse University iSchool, the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA), and residents of Syracuse’s Near Westside (NWS) to develop three little free libraries LFL) on the Near Westside. It’s time to look back at what happened, check-in on the three LFLs we installed, and think about them in the age of COVID-19.

It was a team effort

Person writing on whiteboard in front of people
Developing and placing the little free libraries in Syracuse was a collaborative effort. We first had to consider where we might want to place them and how we envisioned them being used. Our first ideas were too complex and eventually we realized that the LFLs will be used how the community wants to use them. In other words, once we placed them in a community, we could not control them. Then we thought about which community could use them the most and we immediately thought of the Near Westside.

Jaime Snyder (now a professor at the University of Washington), Zeke Leonard (SU College of Visual and Performing Arts), and I (now professor emerita in the iSchool) were able to get SU students interested in the idea. Students in VPA were curious about the design aspects and how to create little free libraries that fit into the atmosphere of the Near Westside. iSchool students were interested in meeting the information needs of the Westside residents. We were joined by Maarten Jacobs, who was then the Director of the Near Westside Initiative. Maarten connected us with residents on the Westside, who wanted to give us input and offered to help as caretakers of the LFLs.

Little Free Library full of books
The first LFL was built by VPA students from an old phone kiosk and was located on a building on Gifford Street. The store owner was happy to give us use of part of his outside wall. iSchool MSLIS (library science) students hosted book drives and worked to put bookplates in hundreds of books, along with bookmarks. On Feb. 3, 2012, we held a launch party on Gifford Street for that first LFL! During the event, we accepted more book donations and filled that first LFL several times. It was a hit!

And then there were three

We then installed two more LFLs on the Near Westside. One was at 601 Tully, which was moved three years later to 208 Slocum Avenue. The third was mounted at 300 Otisco Street. All were made from repurposed telephone kiosks, which are virtually indestructible. The original kiosks were modified with shelving, door, and signage, and made waterproof.

The building, where the original free library was located, was purchased and that site turn into a St. Joseph’s Primary Care Center, where the LFL was incorporated into the building’s design. This LFL is being maintained by a broad range of people who live, work or worship in that neighborhood. The other two LFLs have not been maintained as well as hoped, but they do still exist. They both need a bit of care and attention. Perhaps besides books, the community needs them to share other resources such as food or personal care items.

Take a book, return a book

The premise of the little free libraries is “take a book, return a book.” However, we knew that residents on the Near Westside might not have books to leave in the LFL and that they might want to keep the books they borrowed. We didn’t see that as a problem, but rather knew that meant obtaining book donations would be important, so we could keep the LFL filled.

One thing we learned is that many people had books to donate. In fact, we ended up with many more book donations that we could easily handle. Storage became a problem, as did marking the book as being from/for the LFL. Thanks to Maarten Jacobs, who was able to give us storage space, and Lorranne Nasir (a then MSLIS student), who processed a lot of books!

Those three LFLs are not alone in Syracuse

Map of Syracuse area Little Free Libraries
The number of Little Free Libraries in Onondaga County continues to grow. This map from the Little Free Library web site shows many of them. However, many have not been formally registered and are not listed on the site. Interested in LFLs in other regions? You can run your own search on the LFL web site.

We did create documents to be used by other little free libraries, such as information on book drives and a collection development policy. (The collection development policy was a student project.) These are dated materials now, but may still be a good starting point for others as they think about what to accept in their LFL and what to toss out. In fact, the collection development policy would likely be written quite differently now.

LFLs and the pandemic

On the Little Free Library website, Margret Aldrich has written “Best Practices at Little Free Libraries During the Coronavirus Outbreak.” If a LFL steward (or caretaker) decides to leave their LFL open during the pandemic, Margret suggests the following:

  • Follow the Center for Disease Control guidelines. 
  • Wash or sanitize your hands before opening your Little Free Library and every time you use the library. 
  • Regularly clean your LFL, especially high-touch areas of the LFL, like the handle or bookshelves. 
  • If you are sick, don’t share books in your library until you are symptom-free. 
  • If your neighbors are sick, they should not come to your library. 
  • Do not gather with others at your Little Free Library. Social distancing is critical to flattening the curve and slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

A book is the cover and the pages inside. It is believed that the coronavirus does not live long on paper, but may live longer on a book cover which is a harder surface. Research is underway by OCLC, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and Battelle “ to create and distribute science-based information and recommended practices” to support the handling of library materials, while mitigating exposure to COVID-19. This research will help LFL caretakers, by giving them science-based information on how to handle donations to their LFLs. In the meantime, caretakers may want to:

  • Quarantine books for a minimum of three days before placing them in the LFL. This is a practice that many public and academic libraries are following. When a book is in quarantine, do not handle it at all.You might set up a quarantine area in a particular spot and mark it as such. 
  • If you are concerned about book covers being dirty, wipe book covers with disinfectant wipes. (Remember that you do not need to disinfect the paper.) 

They belong to their communities

After the Little Free Library launch party
While a few names are mentioned in this post, there are many, many others - too many names to mention - who should be thanked for their help with these little free libraries. (And many more than shown in this photo.) In addition, I know that there are many people in the Syracuse community who have supported these LFLs. Thank you for the books you have placed in them. And thank YOU to those who have taken a book to read. By doing that, you are also supporting these little free libraries!

And that brings us to the biggest lesson of all about these structures. They truly belong to their community. That community includes people who put books in and those who take books out. Jaime, Zeke, and I long ago relinquished any claim to these LFLs. Really, there were never ours. Rather they were a gift from a large group of people to the Near Westside. We’re thankful that you have liked them!

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