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Todd Bol holds the Innovations in Reading prize that was presented to Little Free Library at the National Book Awards program in New York City in mid-November. Behind Bol are framed copies of a few of the thousands of stories about the Hudson-based nonprofits that have appeared in publications. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Randy Hanson)

Fame and awards mount for Little Free Library

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Hudson Star Observer
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River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

It’s hard to keep up with Little Free Library’s meteoric rise in the world of books.

A little more than a year ago, Todd Bol was building the miniature libraries on the deck of his house near the St. Croix River in Hudson.

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Now the nonprofit organization he co-founded has a 4,000-square-foot headquarters in the town of Hudson, along with 10 employees.

There are expected to be some 15,000 Little Free Libraries in 55 countries by the end of the year. People are registering their libraries at a clip of 700 to 800 a week.

Every day there are multiple reports in the media about the phenomenon in the United States alone. Within the past few weeks, the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Minneapolis StarTribune have published stories about the libraries.

Most of the nation’s major newspapers -- and countless smaller ones -- have noticed the Little Free Libraries appearing in front lawns and other places. Stories about the libraries air regularly on television news programs, too.

Bol put up the first Little Free Library in front of his house in 2009 in tribute to his late mother, June, a one-time schoolteacher with a love of children and reading.

In 2010, Bol partnered with Rick Brooks of Madison, a University of Wisconsin outreach program manager, to see if the Little Free Library had a wider appeal.

It did. The first Little Free Library in Madison, placed on a post next to a bike path behind the Absolutely Art Gallery, created a buzz. Soon other Madisonians were requesting libraries.

Brooks is credited with recognizing the widespread attraction of the libraries that people put up and stock with books, inviting their neighbors to: “Take a book. Return a book.”

The library stewards can either make the libraries themselves or purchase them through the nonprofit’s website, www.littlefreelibrary.org. Stewards are encouraged to register their library on the website’s worldwide map and purchase an official Little Free Library sign.

The growing number of Little Free Libraries across the country began attracting local and national media attention in 2011. The year ended with about 400 libraries in place.

In 2012, Little Free Library became an official nonprofit corporation with a board of directors and officers. By the end of the year, there were more than 6,000 registered Little Free Libraries worldwide.

They’ve multiplied at an accelerating rate in 2013, and the phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down.

Bol equates the growth to the puppy effect. People see one and they want to have one of their own. And the media attention helps spread the word.

“Hudson gets mentioned a lot. I would imagine we are one of the champion flag-bearers of Hudson, Wisconsin,” Bol said of the news reports. “We’re in the media an average of three, six, seven times every day. Mostly, it’s because the neighborhoods in the communities have done this (established Little Free Libraries).”

National Book Award

Bol is recently back from the National Book Awards program in New York City where Little Free Library was presented with one of five Innovations in Reading prizes.

Unfortunately, he was sick the night of the black-tie awards banquet, attended by the elite of the book publishing industry. He had to remain in his hotel room while his sister Carolee accepted the prize on his behalf.

The prize included a $2,500 monetary award, which Bol said is already spent.

A Little Free Library featuring pictures of 20 top authors was given to the National Book Foundation, which presents the Book Awards.

The Book Foundation credited Bol and Brooks with promoting “a sense of community, reading for children, literacy for adults and libraries around the world.”

“Books became the currency of friendship, and constructing the free neighborhood book exchanges themselves emerged as a new American folk craft,” the foundation said in explaining what Bol and Brooks have done.

Bol is equally proud of the Movers and Shakers Award that Little Free Library received from the Library Journal, the publication of the American Library Association.

Early on, reporters would sometimes ask him what librarians thought of the Little Free Libraries. They love them, he said.

“Libraries and librarians are our biggest supporters. We sell more to them and they help us more than anyone else.”

The Movers and Shakers Award is proof of it.

Hollywood comes calling

Now the entertainment industry is seeking to capture some of the magic of the Little Free Libraries.

The producers of a comedy miniseries coming to the Independent Film Channel (IFC) on cable TV in January have partnered with Little Free Library to promote both the miniseries and literacy programs.

Each segment of “The Spoils of Babylon” will be introduced by the fictional author Eric Jonrosh, “the undisputed master of dramatic fiction.” Bol isn’t at liberty to name the actor who will play Jonrosh yet, but says he’s the lead character in the movie “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” that will open Dec. 18.

“The Spoils of Babylon” has a star-studded cast, including Tim Robbins, Kristen Wiig, Tobey Maguire, Jessica Alba, Michael Sheen, Haley Joel Osment and Val Kilmer.

Little Free Library has built a number of libraries with “The Spoils of Babylon” billboard on them. The libraries will sold through the nonprofit’s website, with the proceeds going to support its literacy programs.

“Welcome to the Eric Jonrosh Little Free Library,” reads a bookmark promoting both the libraries and the miniseries. “The most famous author of all time is partnering with Little Free Library to champion his fight against illiteracy. If you can’t read, then you can’t read my masterwork, ‘The Spoils of Babylon.’”

While the miniseries is a spoof, the people involved in its production are serious about promoting literacy, Bol said. “They care.”

Bol also is working on a partnership with the producers of the film “The Book Thief,” currently in theaters.

“The movie is about the value of books, so it is a perfect fit for us,” Bol said. “We are told they had a Little Free Library on the set.”

A movement

“It is overwhelming,” Bol replied when asked about the demands of running an organization experiencing such rapid growth.

He’s been working every day and about 300 hours a month.

“This morning, I made soup by 5 for dinner tonight, and then was at the computer by 5:15,” he said. “I’ll stay at it until 9, and then I’ll pass out.”

He doesn’t take credit for the success of Little Free Library though.

He tells a story about Mahatma Gandhi during his nonviolent campaign to end British rule in India. After talking to a reporter for 15 minutes, Gandhi excused himself.

“I must see where my followers are taking me,” Gandhi is reported to have said.

“I’ve paid attention to that,” Bol said. “When you’re, quote, leading a movement, you’re not really leading it. What happens is that there’s all kinds of good things that are happening. What you can do is capture some of those good things, and then report back to everybody else…

“What we are learning about is the best practices and the good programs that are happening out there because of all the stewards. They are really leading the movement and telling us what to do.”

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Randy Hanson
Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.
(715) 426-1066
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