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Little Libraries - No Card Required

by James Rada, Jr.

Bookbox

Amateur librarians Ann Rotz and Amy House offer easy access to readers in their community.

This past Halloween the children who stopped by Ann Rotz’s home in Hagerstown got their treats at her door, but many of them also left with a book to read. Out front of Ann’s home is what resembles a very large birdhouse on a pole, except there aren’t any birds inside — the box is filled with books for Ann’s branch of the Little Free Library. “A lot of families were curious about it on Halloween night,” Ann says. “The library got cleaned out.”

She restocked the library with books she had in storage, and many of the people who borrowed books eventually returned them — and hopefully took another one to read, demonstrating the very mantra behind the program — take a book, return a book. Ann’s Little Free Library is one of thousands of libraries in communities across the country, and one of six in Washington County so far.

The Little Free Library movement began in 2009 with Todd Bol in Hudson, Wis. He built a model of a one-room schoolhouse and filled it with books as a way to honor his mother who was a teacher and loved reading. The idea was an immediate hit as friends and neighbors began borrowing and returning books. Sometimes they returned the same book they had borrowed; sometimes it was a different one. The idea soon spread and now Little Free Libraries can be found in every state and roughly two dozen countries.

Amy House of Hagerstown saw an article about Little Free Libraries in a magazine and became interested. “I thought it was a neat idea,” Amy says.

“I grew up reading and loved it, and my kids loved the idea.”

While you can buy plans and kits to build a Little Free Library, Amy decided to be original. She and her family found an old box in an antique store, fixed it up, painted it, and then mounted it out front of her home. It now stocks about three dozen books — mainly for kids and teens. “There are lots of kids in the neighborhood who use it, but I still think a lot of families don’t know about it yet,” Amy says.

She plans on doing some marketing for her Little Free Library, such as creating bookmarks and passing them out to people she meets. She also tries to stock seasonal books and is considering putting out magazines to encourage increased usage of the library. “I want people to be excited to look inside the box and want to share what they find,” Amy says.

Ann tries to stock a variety of books for children and adults in her Little Free Library, though this changes depending on what books people leave behind. She has parents and students who pass her home walking to and from school, who will stop to browse the selection of books in her library. She’s even seen some people drive up to use her library. “It has sparked such positive interactions,” Ann says. “It has become a hub of the community, which I didn’t expect.”

Ann initially decided to start her library out of curiosity and as a social experiment. A librarian friend had mentioned the idea to her and she wanted to see if it would work in her neighborhood. Not only has it worked, but people have come up to her in restaurants and stopped her on the street to tell her how much they like her library.

The underlying idea behind Little Free Libraries is to give people easy access to books and encourage them to read. While they can’t replace public and school libraries, they can supplement them, giving children and adults more ways to get their hands on reading material and their noses buried in books.

Coincidentally, Washington County has been making strides in eliminating illiteracy. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the illiteracy rate in Washington County was 9 percent in 2003 — a 40 percent drop from the last time the measurement was taken in 1992. Little Free Libraries seek to do more than fight illiteracy though. They want to encourage a love of reading. That was one of the reasons why Amy opened her library.

As for keeping track of the books Ann stocks in her library, she’s really not concerned if someone takes a book without returning one. “I would much rather them have a book in their home that they can read when they want,” she says. This does require her to fill her library with new books from time to time, but the community has been supportive in the idea.

When the Herald-Mail ran a story about Ann’s Little Free Library, it mentioned that she didn’t have much to offer kids. In response, a retired elementary school librarian donated her collection of four large boxes of books to Ann. And now she shares those books with dozens of people who discover and cultivate the joys of reading.

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