Little Free Library breaks Carnegie's record with 2,510+ libraries (and growing)

Rich Erstad built this Little Free Library as a Mother's Day gift for his wife, Shirley. Across from it, a bench for readers.

Rich Erstad built this Little Free Library as a Mother's Day gift for his wife, Shirley. Across from it, a bench for readers.

Jack Revheim and Shirley Erstad
Rich Erstad built this Little Free Library as a Mother's Day gift for his wife, Shirley. Across from it, a bench for readers.
On Shirley Erstad's front lawn in St. Paul is a birdhouse-mailbox hybrid, complete with solar light and garden roof, that's filled with books for exchanging. Since her husband built it for her as a surprise Mother's Day gift earlier this year, Erstad has seen two old women sit on a nearby bench and read for hours, teenagers come by with a basket to pick up books, and neighbors stop to ask for tips on building their own.

Erstad's structure is a Little Free Library, one of thousands that have been sprouting up across the cities, the country, and, increasingly, the world, from Brazil to Lithuania to Pakistan. Co-founder Todd Bol estimates that since last summer the number of Little Free Libraries in the Twin Cities has jumped from two or three to between 60 and 70. (The official map shows more than 90 in the state, with 25 in Minneapolis and 22 in St. Paul, but Bol says that about three quarters of the libraries go unregistered).

Two summers ago, when Bol and his fellow founder, Rick Brooks, first hatched their plan for small, local libraries, they were already thinking in terms of a movement. They planted the first library in Madison, Wisconsin, Brooks's city, but set a goal of multiplying the project 2,509 times in order to break great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie's record of public libraries.

Now, Little Free Library has passed that milestone, and on Friday it's partnering with the Mall of America to celebrate -- and to outline what's next.

Amy Rice
Mpls-based painter Amy Rice designed these three Little Free Libraries, which now have homes in California. She's at work on a fourth.
Bol and Brooks were aiming to catch Carnegie's record by 2014, but as the libraries took off, they hit their mark a year and a half ahead of schedule. Now, they're planning to even further expand the network. "I think we're going to double Andrew Carnegie's number in six to nine months," Bol says.

To make numbers like that, LFL isn't just relying on momentum. The project is launching a "Small Towns Initiative" push to get a library in every town that's lacking one. Bol cites statistics from the University of Minnesota at Morris that say more than 900 towns in Minnesota don't have a library, and describes partnerships with companies interested in funding the next batch. Lennar Homes, for instance, is installing Little Free Libraries across the state along Highway 66. (Most library stewards, as they're called, build their own, but LFL also sells pre-made standard models for $250, and prices go above $1,000 for custom, artist-designed ones. Then, library builders or buyers pay $25 to register their new libraries with the larger group, and get a plaque and an official spot on the map, though many stewards skip this step).

Mpls-based painter Amy Rice designed these three Little Free Libraries, which now have homes in California. She's at work on a fourth.

Mpls-based painter Amy Rice designed these three Little Free Libraries, which now have homes in California. She's at work on a fourth.

The project is also working on enriching its existing network, and to that effect, is introducing a few other new initiatives: a "recommended reads" program, for both neighbors and, through the Mall of America, celebrities, to share favorite books; and a new slogan, "Celebrating Healthier Neighborhoods," which will mark the top of all forthcoming LFL plaques.

The slogan gets at the core of LFL, which is as much about community as it is about literacy. "We always hear people say they've met more neighbors in five days with a Little Free Library than in 20 years at their house," says Bol. "Someone the other day said to me that Little Free Library is the front yard porch that extends to the street. If I said 'Hi' to you on the street, you might think, 'Who's that weird guy?' But if you see me stopping at a little library, you know we have a common language of books, and you'd talk to me."

Evidence for Bol's theory is in the libraries' rapid rise, but on a more local level, also in the number of community organizations that have embraced them. The first Sunday in August, a group of about 11 Longfellow families gathered at a neighbor's wood shop in St. Paul to craft 15 new libraries for their neighborhood. The event was put together by Transition Longfellow, and the Longfellow Community Council covered the cost of materials for residents.

Over the din of drills and saws, the neighbors chatted about plans for their new lawn additions. Some wanted to include benches and create a mini-park, others were thinking of adding rain barrels and solar panels to turn the library into a kind of green model home, and one family was brainstorming a "Little Free Egg Basket" to go underneath the library, stocked with fresh eggs from their chicken coop. They talked about seeding the libraries with gardening manuals, suspense novels, outgrown picture books, and old favorites.

Silverwood Park
Local sculptor Aaron Dysart created a custom Little Free Library for Silverwood Park, by Silver Lake in Minneapolis.

Local artists are becoming active with the libraries, too. Soo Visual Arts Center on Lyndale has a pair out front, and also sells pre-made libraries. The gallery rounded up books to start the libraries and still makes deposits in them, but now sees a healthy exchange, including handmade books from local crafters. The most frequently spotted title, says gallery director Carolyn Payne, is The Power of Now.

 "People come in to the gallery who might not otherwise, because of the library, and look at the art," says Payne. "So it's cool for us, because we get to meet different people from the community."

Cities-based artists like painter Amy Rice have decorated custom libraries, and Silverwood Park on Minneapolis's Silver Lake commissioned sculptor Aaron Dysart to design a library with a tree-stump base and copper shingling, which has been up for about a month.

All the artists getting involved the project add to the libraries' creativity, but area presses are also recognizing that more people reading jives with their missions. In December, Coffee House Press reached out to Milkweed Editions and Graywolf Press, and all three donated 50 books from their back catalogs, which the Walker Art Center then sold as curated, 15-book sets with new pre-made libraries. In the eight months since, Coffee House has kept on contributing, to the tune of more than 1,700 books. Some are sold with new libraries, others are sent around the country, and many are just dropped in little libraries around the Cities to be spread and shared.

Bol, who lives in nearby Hudson, Wisconsin, has a friendly competition with his co-founder, Brooks, about whether the Twin Cities or Madison has more libraries. (Right now, Madison is up about 15, but we're gaining.) As the project continues to spread, Bol says he knew at the start that he and Brooks were on to something from the way people squealed over the libraries like they were puppies.

"I couldn't have really envisioned the scale of this project when we started, but I saw the spark on the first day. When I install these, half the people hug them," Bol says. "It's like in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy gives the Tin Man a little oil and he starts dancing. I feel like we just gave a little oil, and now this is dancing all over the place."

For a look at international library ingenuity, check out the Little Free Library photo galleries. Here are a few more local snaps of libraries around town: