The first Little Free Library popped up in my neighborhood about a year ago. It looked like a deluxe birdhouse topped with wooden bunny ears. How adorable! I thought. When I peeked inside, I saw that the contents were largely children’s books or the kind of bestseller that I can’t often swallow. Still, I liked the idea of the Little Free Library. What a cute vessel for book exchange!
Recently a second book-filled birdhouse appeared just up the street from me, this one crowned by an open-mouthed blue bird.
Later when I got home to my WiFi, I visited littlefreelibrary.org to get the scoop. The non-profit organization’s mission statement is declared on the home page: “To promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide and to build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.”
A worthy cause, no doubt. Who doesn’t want to promote literacy*?
I clicked on the World Location Map and saw that these little birdhouses are popping up across Northern America, with a smattering in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Upon closer inspection, however, I noticed that the Little Free Libraries are located almost entirely in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods; places where literacy is already promoted in high-performing schools and most of the population can afford to buy their own books. Here’s the catch: while the organization provides tips and tricks for setting up and maintaining your Little Free Library — and sells a number of do-it-yourself kits — it is up to the individual to invest the time and money into the effort. Of course, most low income people can’t afford to buy books, let alone cough up $150 for the basic birdhouse kit.
The net effect? Free books for everyone, except those who really need them.
As much as I adore these little birdhouses, if the goal is truly to promote literacy, we will all benefit if those of us who can afford to buy books do so at our neighborhood bookstores**, and then after reading them, donate them to a local under-resourced library or to organizations that directly support literacy programs.
(Stepping down off of my soapbox. For now).
* With the exception of several unnamed countries that ban women from reading, driving, speaking in public, showing their ankles…you get the idea.
** Shout out to Walden Pond Books in Oakland!