You’ve seen them before – the brightly colored mailbox-libraries sprinkled throughout neighborhoods and parks. These tiny libraries are the collective work of Little Free Library, a nonprofit organization that inspires a love of reading, builds community, and sparks creativity by fostering neighborhood book exchanges around the world. In only ten years, the organization has helped to install more than 90,000 little free libraries in over 90 countries through which millions of books are exchanged each year.

Since the first of these libraries popped up in the Mid-Ohio Valley five years ago, more than thirty Little Free Libraries have been installed throughout Wood County, WV and Washington County, OH and beyond.

Little Free Library in front of the Lafayette Branch Library

These little libraries are “take a book, return a book” gathering places built for and by community members where neighbors share their favorite stories and novels with each other. In its simplest form, it’s a box full of books where anyone may stop and pick up a book (or two) and bring back another to share – although some libraries expand on the concept to meet additional needs within their neighborhood. Last year, the Washington County Youth Advisory Council installed four Little Free Libraries in Newport, Vincent, Lowell, and Beverly and stocked them with books for teens and young adults as well as hygiene products. Another, installed by the Good Shepard Episcopal Church near their Community Garden, contains books on gardening, garden tools, and seeds.

The idea originated with Todd Bol and Rich Brooks in Wisconsin who were inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s dream of free public libraries and the achievements of Miss Lutie Stearns, who outlined the basic blueprint for traveling libraries (what we commonly refer to as bookmobiles now.) Bol and Brooks wanted to increase access to books, especially in communities where books were scarce.

Little Free Library at the Armory in Marietta

Each library is unique in both its appearance and its collection. Those wishing to install a Little Free Library can choose a finished or unfinished style from the nonprofit’s website, or design and build their own completely from scratch. While some are simple constructions in neutral colors or wood stains, others are elaborate designs that mimic spaceships, monsters, telephone booths, mushrooms, whimsical castles, and more. Some are miniature architectural studies of the homes or buildings they sit in front of; others are were painted by local schools or service groups in bright, vibrant colors. All Little Free Libraries can be added to the official map on the nonprofit’s website, though there are more than a few local libraries that are not yet listed.

The Little Free Library on the corner of 5th and Scammel Streets in Marietta (Charter #81298) matches the exterior of the home behind it. “My husband and I decided that, because we needed nothing for Christmas this year, we would install a Little Free Library for use by the entire neighborhood and passersby instead,” reads a note from its installers on the Little Free Library website. “It will be a delight to watch the interest and use of our little building. We have already gotten donations of books from neighbors and have a backup stack to refill when needed.”

Little Free Library on the corner of 5th and Scammel Streets

The Maple Ridge Library at Bonfire Pizza in Lubeck was created through a project-based learning experience by Maple Ridge Homeschoolers during the spring 2019 meetup. Participants of various ages researched, brainstormed, discussed, designed, voted, fund-raised, purchased materials, constructed, adapted the design as needed, painted, and collected books for the library.

Others, like the library installed at the entrance of the Armory or the one located at the Boys and Girls Club in Harmar with hand-painted floral designs, were installed by local service organizations. Each of the Washington County Public Library locations has a Little Free Library installed nearby, with the newest addition installed in front of the Friends of the Library’s building on Fifth Street in Marietta. In Parkersburg, Little Free Libraries can be found downtown (like the one near Crystal Café sponsored by Downtown PKB or the library at Point Park Marketplace), near schools, and in residential neighborhoods. In Barlow, a new library was recently installed by Girl Scout Troop 4163 on the walking track. One library in Vienna was dedicated by its owner “to the memory of author, dreamer, and magic maker, Sir Terry Pratchett.”

Little Free Library in Barlow installed by Girl Scout Troop 4163

These Little Free Libraries have made a much wider impact than on literacy and book access alone. Three out of four people say they’ve read a book that they normally would not have a read, thanks to a Little Free Library and 73% of people say they’ve met more of their neighbors because of a Little Free Library. In fact, a 2017 survey showed that 92% of those surveyed said their neighborhood feels like a friendlier place because of a Little Free Library.

The beauty of the Little Free Library is that anyone can buy or build one to place in their yard or share with their neighbors. Each library adds a bit of magic to its neighborhood, sparking imaginations and bringing communities together to share in the joys of reading. So the next time you have a book you’d like to share, stop by your local Little Free Library and spread a little literary magic!