2019 marks the tenth anniversary of Little Free Library (LFL), a nonprofit organization that encourages individuals and organizations to place book exchange boxes on their properties. Their mission statement says that the organization, “inspires a love of reading, builds community, and sparks creativity by fostering neighborhood book exchanges around the world,” but also goes on to suggest that the movement is meant to provide book access to low-income families to help increase their academic success: “Little Free Libraries play an essential role [in improving reading achievement] by providing 24/7 access to books (and encouraging a love of reading!) in areas where books are scarce.” The idea is that Little Free Libraries are supposed to benefit areas known as “book deserts,” places where books are not readily available in either libraries or bookstores. But I still wondered, after ten years, what impact on literacy have Little Free Libraries really had?
Information on the impact of Little Free Libraries is surprisingly scarce. The one article I found that attempted to ask and measure that same question is the 2017 article “Little Free Libraries®: Interrogating the Impact of the Branded Book Exchange” by Jane Schmidt and Jordan Hale in the Journal of Radical Librarianship. Schmidt and Hale note that they were accustomed to seeing Little Free Libraries (note that this is a brand name, even though unregistered book exchanges often use it) in wealthier areas, and so set out to see if they could determine the function of the book exchange. Their findings are critical, to say the least.
Schmidt and Hale cover numerous aspects of the Little Free Library phenomenon, but their main conclusions are that the book exchanges are often found in “well-heeled” neighborhoods with library access rather than in “book deserts” and that LFL seems to exist primarily to make more money in order to expand. They criticize LFL for measuring “success” only in numbers of book exchanges built and for not attempting to respond to the needs of the communities or to measure what impact on literacy their book exchanges may have. They are skeptical that secondhand books, not curated for individual communities, can adequately meet community needs and suggest that the “corporatization of literary philanthropy” is ultimately problematic both in that it means LFL seems more concerned with business than with activism and in that it is a danger in the tendency for individuals to take over philanthropic work in lieu of the government–something that has resulted in one Texas town cutting library funding and building Little Free Libraries instead.
The authors argue that paying to be a registered Little Free Library steward is unnecessary for one to share books with one’s neighbors. They wonder why it is necessary for stewards of official Little Free Libraries to pay $39-$89 to register, plus more if they choose to buy a box from the LFL store. They assert that official membership results in few meaningful benefits in return from LFL and ultimately “conclude that the act of stewarding an LFL® is a performative act of literary philanthropy.” That is, for many, owning an LFL is about showing the community how much one loves books, and not necessarily driven by a charitable desire to increase literacy rates among those with limited access to books.
Schmidt and Hale published in 2017 and end their article with a statement that they shared some resources with LFL and suggested a community-lead model for the organization. A quick look at the LFL website, however, makes it difficult to ascertain if any changes have been made. Their About page continues to measure impact in terms of numbers of LFLs built since 2009 (over 90,000 in 90+ countries), as does their annual report, which also highlights awards received and media mentions, but fails to say anything about literacy rates. They do have an initiative to build LFLs in low-income communities, but details are scarce. The statistics they choose to highlight on their About page (73% met neighbors! 92% think LFLs make neighborhoods friendlier!) are about how LFLs have impacted stewards positively–people who already appreciate books and have enough money to register and purchase an LFL. And Schmidt and Hale were still wondering in 2018 if LFL’s revenue ($3 million reported in 2018) even goes to LFL’s literacy initiatives.
LFL continues its ambiguous legacy as Publishers Weekly reported in October 2019 that “the organization filed three separate applications for new trademarks with the U.S. Patent Office regarding the term, ‘Little Free Library,’ used in connection with the words, ‘wooden boxes with a storage area for books,’ and ‘signs, non-luminous and non-mechanical, of metal,’ and ‘guest books and rubber stamps.’ Tony Bol, the brother of deceased founder Todd Bol, warns that this could allow LFL to take legal action against any boxes with books in them, “allowing for monopolization of the Little Free Library movement as a marketplace.” LFL executive director Greig Metzger responded by saying they were concerned only about for-profit organizations using the concept, not individuals who do not register with LFL. But the move does seem to answer Schmidt and Hale’s question as to why one must pay to run a book exchange: so one will not face potential legal action.
Perhaps LFLs do not particularly impact low-income areas or book deserts. Perhaps they really just are for people to bond over books and to express their love for them. Without much data, it is hard to know. However, there is nothing inherently wrong in someone wanting to share their love of books with their neighbors. Perhaps, for many, the idea of books on every corner is what really matters.