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Two Little Free Libraries stand in the front lawn of the organization's co-founder, Todd Bol. The Wisconsin Historical Museum has asked for the first Little Free Library that Bol built and put in front of his house on North Street in Hudson.

Little Free Library phenomenon gains momentum

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Little Free Library phenomenon gains momentum
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The Little Free Library movement that got its start in Hudson is ready to shift into the next phase, according to founder Todd Bol.

The story of 2012, he said, was that the little libraries are popping up everywhere.

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From the first library being placed on a post in Bol's front lawn in Hudson in 2009, and the second along a Madison bike path in 2010, the number of Little Free Libraries has increased to more than 6,000 worldwide. It's growing at a rate of at about 500 a month -- and accelerating.

There are Little Free Libraries in every state in the union and at least 36 countries -- from Great Britain, Germany and Denmark to India, Pakistan and Ghana.

Bol and co-founder Rick Brooks, a University of Wisconsin outreach program manager, estimate that 2,000 or more stories about the movement have appeared in newspapers and magazines, and on television and radio.

The next edition of Oprah Winfrey's O magazine is expected to have a story on Little Free Libraries. Japanese public television had a crew at Hudson High School a couple of weeks ago videotaping students at work on Little Free Libraries bound for Africa.

Reporter Boyd Huppert of KARE 11 TV in the Twin Cities recently interviewed Bol for a piece he was working on.

Stories about the libraries have aired on public television in Russia, Denmark and Sweden. The Associated Press said the Little Free Libraries are a global sensation, and the Huffington Post called them a global phenomenon, according to Bol.

"And the one that just blows me away the most -- I just giggle at -- we've been in Italian, French, German, Israeli and Korean fashion magazines," he related.

Why fashion magazines?

"We're a fashion statement," Bol explained. "If you're a really cool, forward-thinking person, you have a Little Free Library in your front yard."

He chuckled, too, at the Seattle Times calling the Little Free Libraries the social media networking exchange of the year.

"It's like saying the new mode of transportation is walking," he said with a laugh.

The next phase

The goal for 2013 is to take the energy and excitement generated by the appearance of Little Free Libraries and use it in a more systemized way to reach more communities.

"We're actively seeking partners who share our interest," said Brooks, who was in Hudson last week for a meeting of the board of directors for the Little Free Library nonprofit organization.

Brooks used the analogy of the organization evolving from a structure comparable to a mainframe computer into a network of desktop and laptop computers.

"Our goal never was to become millionaires - or even to make a profit," he said. "We would like to earn a living so that we can keep it going. We also know - being honest about it - that the two of us and the close group of friends and colleagues around us can't keep up this pace."

The interview took place at Little Free Library's studio, a small combination workshop, office and distribution center in the St. Croix Granite building at 573 County Road A in the town of Hudson.

The organization has a small staff, including a couple of part-time employees and a handful of volunteer consultants.

Bol is the Little Free Library executive director and coordinates the manufacture of the libraries.

Brooks, who resides in Madison, is the chair of the board and the marketing specialist.

They both deal with the media because of the crush of inquiries from around the country and the world.

Elizabeth J. Kennedy, an artist, works out of the Hudson studio painting little libraries and sending signs and information packets to people who build their own libraries and want them registered. Having your library registered gets it placed on the world Google map of Little Free Libraries.

The organization's website, www.littlefreelibrary.org, has a link to the map. Viewers can click on an icon and bring up photos and information about the individual libraries and their stewards (the people who erect and care for them).

Megan Blake-Horst of the Absolutely Art gallery in Madison works part-time answering email messages from people who have visited the organization's website.

Melissa Eystad of Hudson is a member of the board of directors and assists in building the organization's infrastructure and resource base.

"Now, we don't all get paid. When there is no money, Todd and I don't get paid. I believe I've had four paychecks in three years," Brooks volunteered. "The hourly employees do get paid."

Books for Africa

Bol cited a Books for Africa project as an example of the direction the organization is headed.

Books for Africa is a St. Paul organization dedicated to promoting literacy in Africa.

The group has formed a partnership with Little Free Library to send more than 2,000 little libraries to Ghana, Nigeria and other African countries over the next several years.

The two organizations are asking local groups, schools, businesses and individuals to raise the money needed to design and build each library, fill it with books, and ship it to Africa.

Hudson High School has gotten involved in the project. Woodworking students will make 12 of the libraries.

They will be painted by art students, working in collaboration with African American artists from the Twin Cities who will teach about African art.

The high school's media department will make a video about the project.

When the libraries are completed, they will be put on display at The Phipps Center for the Arts in an effort to gain sponsors for them.

Rotary International also is involved in the project. When the little libraries arrive in Ghana, Rotarians there will find stewards for them and get them placed.

Finally, it is hoped that African students who benefit from the placement of the Little Free Libraries will communicate in writing with the Hudson students who participated in the project.

Bol said the project will encourage people to "think globally, act locally and develop neighbors from afar."

"We're developing this as a beta test with Hudson High School, and we know it will be written up in many publications nationally and globally," Bol added. "What is neat about it is that there's no reason Prescott or River Falls or Mississippi can't do the same thing. So it becomes a model that can be duplicated throughout the country that really connects people."

The genesis

The unheralded birth of the Little Free Library occurred when Bol built one and put it up in his front yard on North Street, overlooking the St. Croix River in the distance.

His mother, June A. Bol, had been an elementary school teacher and tutor to neighborhood children. He built the little library and supplied it with books in honor of her.

Later that summer, his wife, Susan, a speech pathologist for the Stillwater Area School District, held a garage sale and recruited him to collect the money.

Bol watched people's reaction to little library as they visited the sale and saw that it provoked positive feelings. It reminded him of people's response to a little puppy.

"It just changes the room. Everybody gets happy. Really mean guys hold it and hug it," he said. "That's what happened when people walked by the library."

Shortly before, Bol had met Brooks when Brooks came to Hudson to lead a Chamber of Commerce sponsored workshop on sustainable communities and shopping locally.

The two struck up a friendship.

"I called him and talked to him about how people got so excited about this (little library)," Bol recalled.

Brooks suggested introducing the Little Free Library to the greater public.

"I said, from what I can see, this has the potential to carry a lot of freight," Brooks remembered. "You can reach people about a lot of different issues with something like this, because you rarely find that people are attracted to and feel so good about something."

The two decided their mission would be to promote: 1. a sense of community; 2. reading for children; 3. adult literacy and libraries.

"And promoting a sense of community trumps every time," Brooks added.

"There is a great yearning for a sense of community. Friendships. Doing something positive for your neighbors," he said. "Even though we live in a high-tech world ... pretty much all of us need and want a feeling of belonging and being useful.

"There is some nostalgia involved in this - the feeling that you are in a community of people that care. You care about them. They care about you. They trust you. You give away free books. That's the motivation behind that. We find that people enjoy giving as much or more than taking."

Little Free Library has received a grant from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) to use little libraries as a means of connecting isolated senior citizens to their neighborhoods.

Bol said people often say in email messages after putting up a Little Free Library that they've met more people in the past few days than they have in years.

"That's just magic in and of itself," he said. "The Little Free Library seems to open the door into that neighborhood engagement - people talking to each other."

Little Free Library receives photos from around the world of people with their new libraries. In the previous week, photos from Brazil, India and Romania had been added to the Google world map of Little Free Libraries.

"They are so proud of their library that they built and they stocked. They really feel great about it," Brooks said. "...This is something that makes them feel they have really done something good."

The website

Everything a person needs to know about starting a Little Free Library can be learned at www.littlefreelibrary.org. According to Bol, about 80 percent of stewards build their own libraries, and the website has instructions on how to do it. People can also purchase a Little Free Library from the organization.

The fee to register a library is $34.95. People who register get an official charter sign and number, placement on the world map, an official brochure, a bumper sticker, bookplates and book labels to copy or print, Internet access to artwork and other materials, and eligibility for free new books donated by publishers.

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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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