Should Individuals Stop Referring to Their Book Exchanges as “Libraries?”

A recent kerfuffle on Twitter highlighted the tensions that can swirl around “community libraries,” those house-like repositories of books that people typically place in their yards, hoping friends and neighbors will take a book and maybe even leave one, thereby sharing a love of literature with each other. Most people probably know these structures as “Little Free Libraries,” though this name is actually a registered trademark and, to be considered the steward of an official Little Free Library (LFL), individuals need to register with the organization and purchase a charter sign. Perhaps because of the ubiquity of LFLs, however, people have taken to calling these structures “libraries.” And now others are calling them out on it.

Various objections have been raised to the use of the word “library” concerning these structures. Some seem to think that, to be a true library, one must offer computers, programming, and other public services to the community. Others seem to fear that LFLs (or “book swaps” as they might argue) are a threat to government-funded initiatives to provide equal access, and that they will ultimately be used as a replacement for the public library. Others just seem to be upset that someone might think they are now a “librarian” when they haven’t got an MLIS, meaning that they apparently are not fit to curate or share books for and with their neighbors.

These objections may initially seem ridiculous. So someone wanted to put a book exchange in their yard and share their love of reading with the neighbors. Most people would call that generous! However, some valid objections to the purpose, framing, and implementation of Little Free Libraries (the organization itself) have been raised in the past, and these concerns are probably what the annoyed people of Twitter are thinking about when they chastise individuals for referring to their “book swaps” as “libraries.”

I have written more extensively about the critiques of Little Free Libraries in the past. To summarize, however, the organization seems to suggest that its main purpose is to promote literacy and water “book deserts,” areas where people have no access to libraries or bookstores. However, 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, indicates that most LFLs are located in more affluent neighborhoods with access to the libraries. (Not surprising when one considers the cost of building and maintaining an LFL.) And the organization was measuring its success by number of structures built, and not actually providing data on whether literacy rates were improving as a result of LFLs.

Other concerns raised by Schmidt and Hale were that LFLs could not adequately meet the needs of a community, since they are largely not being curated by knowledgeable persons to provide timely, relevant, and diverse reads. Rather, most LFLs just allow people to leave whatever they want (which could be old, mildewy volumes dug up from their attics). Additionally, there is a fear that LFLs will be an excuse for governments to stop funding public libraries. This may seem absurd, but Scmidt and Hale note that one Texas town did actually slash library funding and built LFLs instead. So people who protest that one should not call their “book swap” a “library” do have real reasons to be concerned about how these “community libraries” are being perceived and used.

Ultimately, however, the real issue here seems not to be what a person calls the box of books in their front yard. After all, a “library” may mean the building, or the collections in the building, or even one’s personal collection of books. The people walking down the street understand that the “community library” or the LFL is referring to the “collection of books” in the structure next to them and that it is not equivalent to or a replacement for the public library, that place with thousands more items that they can browse and even request specifically.

The real issue is that Little Free Library (the organization) has been promoting itself as a way to promote literacy among people with little access to books, a sort of extension of public libraries, when the data available suggests that this is not the case. However, this is a concern people should probably take up with Little Free Library itself, and the government officials who are swayed enough by its claims to slash public library funding. The woman down the street who built her “community library” likely is not claiming to be raising literacy rates, watering book deserts, or helping to provide equal access. That woman probably just likes books and wants to share them with her neighbors. Which is perfectly fine. She is allowed to swap books with the people on her street if she wants to. And if she calls her “book swap” a “library,” they all understand what she means.

Yelling at individuals about the terms they use to refer to a collection of books is ultimately misdirected anger. Real change must come from educating the people in power about the work public libraries do and why it matters. Until government officials understand this, it does not matter what people call their book swaps. Some public officials are looking for any excuse to cut library funding, and they will use a “book swap” as readily as a LFL. So let us extend kindness to other book lovers on the internet, and focus our energy on defending libraries in our communities, at local board meetings, towards the people who truly wield the power to save or destroy our public services.

21 thoughts on “Should Individuals Stop Referring to Their Book Exchanges as “Libraries?”

  1. Mugfullofbooks says:

    I’d missed this particular Twitter debate but this is a great post. You absolutely hit the nail on the head in your last paragraph. Libraries need to be appreciated for all they do.

    On the ‘librarian’ debate – as someone who has worked in public libraries for 20 years, I long ago gave up correcting people who call me a ‘librarian’. To most people if you work in a library that’s what you are and it’s only in professional circles that the distinction actually matters (and there are far fewer qualified librarians in public libraries now, most are to be found in academic libraries.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think “librarian” is one of those terms like “library.” Yes, professionally, you are supposed to have the MLIS to be called or to call yourself a “librarian.” But the general public understands “librarian” to mean “someone who works at a library” and it would just be confusing for the average person if they were given directions like, “Talk to the reference assistant” instead of “See the librarian at the desk.” I think language is fluid and it’s okay to use “librarian” the way people understand it in context!

      Plus, let’s be honest. Most “assistants” or “associates” or whatever a particular building wants to call their non-MLIS holding staff are doing the exact same job as their MLIS-holding peers. It seems a bit snobbish to be told they’re not “real librarians” because they don’t have a degree. Work experience counts, too!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mugfullofbooks says:

        Yeah, you can’t really explain to a kid (or most people really) that you aren’t a ‘proper librarian’ it makes you seem like an idiot! They just want someone to help them and you work in a library = librarian.

        It is important professionally ie in going for certain roles but apart from that I don’t see what real difference it makes.

        Like

  2. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    I’m not aware of this heated discussion but I think people can share their books under whatever name they want and I agree they are being generous and sharing their love for reading. They are not forcing anybody to read them and shouldn’t have to be curated. If I’m not wrong many people cannot go to library or have card even if it’s in their area and if they can have access to books from neighbour’s little collection, it’s obvious they would like to get it and I think it can even inspire them to got to library to get more option as well.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think some of the anger comes from individuals who feel that each “book swap” or whatever they want to call them, ought to be some sort of social justice-oriented project. They’re upset many “little libraries” pop up in well-to-do-areas. But that doesn’t mean these projects are invalid! Plenty of people do nice things every day that aren’t meant to solve poverty at a systemic level.

      Additionally, “little libraries” can still do good even in more affluent neighborhoods. They normalize a love of reading and make reading look fun. They possibly provide access to people who don’t have transportation to the local library, even if it’s relatively close (I’m thinking, for example, of elderly people who can no longer drive or children/teens with parents who don’t prioritize bringing them to the library.)

      Not everything has to be about fighting poverty on a large scale for it to be a nice thing to do. That’s like saying we should stop giving birthday presents or bringing cookies in to work and such because we ought to be giving those fuzzy socks and those snacks to people who need it more. In an ideal world, we would be able to care about fighting poverty AND still do a few nice things to the people around us. Everyone needs to know someone else cares, sometimes. I don’t think a kind gesture is ever wasted, no matter who the recipient is.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Books Teacup and Reviews says:

        so well said! I totally agree with you. I hope people get the message and stop criticizing others. I often have noticed people just blame/ advice/criticize other and they don’t do what they are telling others themselves.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Yes, sometimes I think we might make more progress in certain areas if we reflected more on ourselves and our own actions, rather than on telling other people what they ought to be doing….

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    While I can understand where the people who want to protect the word “library” are coming from, I would assume (or at least hope!) that people are able to understand the word in context and know that “my home library” and “the local library” refer to two very different things!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I feel like the anger here is being misdirected at individuals who just wanted to do a nice thing for their neighborhood. Everyone knows the box isn’t a substitute for the public library. If they don’t, the issue is bigger than the word used to describe the box.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Never Not Reading says:

    I find the notion that anyone would think a LFL was a replacement for an *actual* library ridiculous, and yet am not surprised that it is in MY state that it happened. *sigh* To be fair, small towns have a VERY difficult time funding libraries, largely because of lack of income from business taxes. I was talking to a friend on Insta about this, and I think it might be time to consider restructuring the way libraries work, the same way we are talking about with schools, in order to eliminate the “zip code lottery”.

    As for calling your book swap a library … people can find anything to get mad about, can’t they?

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Over the years, I’ve started to wonder if a lot of library funding issues are related to the fact that the general public usually has no idea how libraries are funded. Plus, since libraries are masters at doing a lot with nothing, a lot of them SEEM well-funded when you visit. A good many people probably have no idea how bad the financial situation really is. And often this is because the libraries themselves are not talking about it.

      Why? I think maybe libraries are afraid that they will look “bad” or “political” if they start discussing their budget in depth. No one wants to be a “failing” business model, right? And yet, I think a good chunk of the U.S. probably still thinks most libraries receive the bulk of their funding from the federal government, when actually the federal government isn’t doing anything for them. If libraries would just educate people about how they are funded and why, I think they’d have a lot more leverage.

      Libraries need to get involved with how their story is told, because the people who want to defund them are doing too a good job spinning the story against them. Case in point: My local library faces budget cuts each year from a specific council member who thinks “libraries are obsolete” and the “library gets too much money.” They go in the paper each year citing these “huge” sums that the library receives. Unsaid is that that tax is actually under $20 per person per year (so you check out one DVD or hardcover book and you’ve already saved money!). Also unsaid is that the “huge” sum is actually petty cash when it comes to government spending and local officials will spend five times that yearly library budget on things like repaving a single road.

      But no one ever writes back the paper defending the library or explaining the library budget. Only one side of the story is being presented and, if that keeps happening over the years, people are going to start to believe it. Especially because, again, they probably think federal taxes will fill in the gaps, when that’s not happening.

      That’s a similar problem with the small, rural libraries you mention. People don’t understand that local taxes comprise the bulk of a library’s funding, so they’re always waiting for someone else at the state or national level to step in and fix things.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Never Not Reading says:

        Many librarians are outspoken advocates for themselves and other programs, but not everyone is. Local politics can be very difficult to navigate, and I can fully understand why people would be scared that rocking the boat could cause them to lose their job. It’s, again, a case of the zip code lottery. Did your zip code get a librarian who is scared and will sit back? Or did your zip code get a librarian who will either write to the paper themselves or contact a “friend of the library” to do it?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Krysta says:

          That’s very true! It’s just another example of how every library is unique, with different needs, people, funding, etc. I know one library where staff are encouraged to go to board meetings. At another, I asked a staff member if staff would attend board meetings, and she indicated that it would be thought inappropriate. I was very confused. The board decides stuff like staff salaries and the staff aren’t “supposed” to show up?? (Well, sure, I bet it’s a lot easier to deny the annual raise when you don’t have to do it to people’s faces!)

          I think we sometimes have this idea of libraries as these pristine places full of books and knowledge and laughing children, untouched by politics. But they tend to get embroiled in the local intrigues just like everyone else.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Never Not Reading says:

            That’s totally bizarre to me that she thought it would be inappropriate for them to go to a board meeting. We are encouraged to go to School Board Meetings because it shows we actually care.

            Like

            • Krysta says:

              I read the past few board meeting minutes online and the board was consistently trying lower the employees’ salaries and get rid of stuff like the cost of living adjustment, so I can see why the board might have discouraged people from attending. They likely didn’t want public commentary on that….

              Liked by 1 person

  5. Sammie @ The Bookwyrm's Den says:

    Oh gosh, I don’t even know where to start on this one. While I think the concern may be justified, I can’t understand people policing others’ vocabulary like this. Call it a library. Why not? As you said, if people are looking to cut budgets, they’ll use any excuse, and it’s NOT because they called it Little Free Library. They could’ve called it Over the Rainbow and the state would’ve still found a reason to cut the budget.

    I thought your point about LFL was particularly interesting, because the way the company is set up itself is actually contrary to its mission. As you said, the cost is definitely a barrier to entry with LFL. My library is in one of the poorest counties in this state, and it’s got a very low literacy rate. We were actually looking at maybe putting in a couple LFL with marketing for the library in a couple different parts of the county, because our county is freaking BIG (it takes about 45 minutes to drive from one end to the other) so sometimes just transportation to the library is a barrier for some people. When we started looking, though, the cost was very prohibitive. No way could we justify spending what LFL wanted in order to set those up.

    I’d almost love to see these libraries or book swaps or whatever you want to call them partnering with their local library. Why do they have to be separate? Most libraries are happy to work as a partner, or even provide little bookmarks about the library to stick in the books in the book swap. It’s just so weird to me that everyone wants the same thing and is working toward the same goal but they’re fighting each other every step along the way to do it.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I do think that yelling at people about their vocabulary is unhelpful. They’re just one person and probably a bigger impact would be made by directing all that energy at people in charge of big decisions!

      And, I totally agree about the cost of LFL. It’s expensive just to buy the structure and then you have to stock it! I suppose you could make your own, but not everyone is skilled in carpentry. Plus, I think it’s a misconception that DIY is always cheaper. It’s quite possible that buying all the wood and tools and such wouldn’t save that much money in the end.

      I do think partnering with LFLs would be ideal! I don’t think they are the enemy of libraries by any means. Libraries WANT to spread a love of reading and increase literacy rates. Increasing access to books helps do that! It’s not like people are going to stop using libraries just because there’s a box of a few books down the road. Rather, they might become avid readers who then discover the library!

      I think my library actually does go around and put weeded materials into local LFLs. I don’t know if they talk to the stewards or how that happens, but I can’t imagine many people saying they don’t want their LFL stocked. It saves them money while still providing quality books that have been vetted by book experts ,so to speak. And it helps the library give new life to books that weren’t circulating but might still be relevant and worthy titles. Everyone wins.

      People seem to think everything is a competition, but what if making books accessible created more avid readers, making demand for books go up, in all areas?

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply! We'd love to read your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.