HARKER HEIGHTS — A revolutionary way of getting folks to read more often is catching fire like the latest New York Times best-seller. No Internet access or iPad needed. Library card — unnecessary. Fines for overdue books — no such thing. And it’s open 24 hours a day, year-round.
It’s called the Little Free Library, a program where homemade outdoor wooden boxes sit atop fence posts and other perches in small towns, parks, front yards — just about anywhere anybody with an imagination and a saw and hammer cares to plant one.
This grass-roots venture has mushroomed from one unit in Wisconsin in 2009 to more than 15,000 worldwide today.
In Central Texas, Little Free Libraries can be found in Harker Heights, Fort Hood, Lampasas, Lometa and near Walburg.
On a recent, hot June afternoon, several youngsters huddled around the Little Free Library at Carl Levin Park in Harker Heights. Two moms were busy matching books to the children’s reading level. The library opened in September, in a joint effort among the city parks department, the local library and the Military Child Education Coalition.
The library has two wooden boxes at different heights — adult and children’s section. Judy Glennon with the MCEC keeps an eye on the library to ensure it’s got plenty of good stuff for both adults — John Grisham and James Patterson — and kids — “Clifford Plays Fair.”
“We saw this as an opportunity to share good books that we love and we think are worthy of reading, and also to encourage the community to get engaged and share books that they love,” Glennon said. “Every time I go over there, somebody is at the library. It’s working the way it’s supposed to.”
Add to collection
Unlike most conventional libraries, readers are encouraged to bring books and add them to the mix. Drop off a couple of old ones, pick up a few new ones, that’s the plan.
The whole idea was started in 2009 by Todd Bol of Hudson, Wis. He built a model of a one-room schoolhouse to honor his mother, a retired teacher, and stuffed it full of reading material. As a final touch, he tacked on a sign that read “Free Books.”
A University of Wisconsin-Madison instructor, Rick Brooks, liked the idea, and, working with Bol they built a website with blueprints and instructions for people to build their own Little Free Library. Average cost is $75.
The two men drew on inspiration from steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s quest to open 2,509 free public libraries more than 100 years ago. And they used the sharing concept of “take a book, leave a book” collections found in coffee shops and other public hangouts. Their mission: “To promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide.”
Little Free Libraries know no borders. They can be found in faraway places such as Nigeria, Turkey and New Zealand.
Closer to home, a former school teacher and high school football coach stumbled upon this book sharing phenomenon while attending a film festival in Fredericksburg. Mike Kearby saw an opportunity to install one in Lometa, population 900, near his rural home in Lampasas County. Lometa has no public library.
“Immediately after it went up, we had notes and postcards from the churches and different people in the community. ‘Hey, this is a great idea. Thanks for putting this up,’” Kearby said. “If we can get only one kid to read, (who) wasn’t reading before, for $75 … that’s a cheap investment.”
The Lometa library seemed to have something for all ages and tastes: “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Hank the Cowdog” and “Little Women.”
One Central Texas couple who travel full time in a motor home take a Little Free Library with them on the road. Camping in state and national parks, Robert and Diana Heynen of Austin simply open a step stool with a wooden box attached, hang a sign and, voila, the library is open. They’ve hauled their mobile library with them from Texas to the Pacific Northwest to Michigan and back.
“We built the library out of the cabinet doors that were replaced during our kitchen remodel, and the library looked new and shiny at the beginning of its travels,” Heynen wrote in an email. “It now has a nice, well-earned, weathered look from all its miles traveled.”
The Heynens originally stocked their library with travel books, hiking guides and novels. Lately, what’s in the library is whatever readers have donated.
Learn more about the Little Free Library at littlefreelibrary.org.