The History of Little Free Library
The People Who Started the Movement
In the beginning—2009–Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, built a model of a one room schoolhouse as a tribute to his mother, a former school teacher who loved reading. He filled it with books and put it on a post in his front yard. His neighbors and friends loved it. He built several more and gave them away. Each one had a sign that said FREE BOOKS.
Rick Brooks, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, saw Bol’s do-it-yourself project while they were discussing potential social enterprises. Together, the two saw opportunities to achieve a wide variety of goals for the common good. Each brought different skills to the effort, Bol as a creative craftsman experienced with innovative enterprise models and Brooks as a youth and community development educator with a background in social marketing.
They were inspired by many different ideas:
- Andrew Carnegie’s support of 2,509 free public libraries around the turn of the 19th to 20th century.
- The heroic achievements of Miss Lutie Stearns, a librarian who brought books to nearly 1400 locations in Wisconsin through “traveling little libraries” between 1895 and 1914.
- “Take a book, leave a book” collections in coffee shops and public spaces.
- Neighborhood kiosks, TimeBanking and community gift-sharing networks
- Grassroots empowerment movements in Sri Lanka, India and other countries worldwide.
Growth and New Ideas.
By the summer of 2010 the mission and purposes served by the little boxes of books were becoming more clear. The original models had all been built with recycled materials. Each was unique but all shared the theme of exchanging good books and bringing people together for something positive.
The names “Habitat for the Humanities,” “House of Stories” soon gave way to what more and more people called Little Free Libraries. Early adopters of this little innovation became key connectors with friends and supporters. Their role as stewards were critical to the movement’s growing success.
- To promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide.
- To build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.
To build 2,510 Little Free Libraries—as many as Andrew Carnegie—and keep going.*
Promotion of reading for children, literacy for adults and libraries around the world.
With no start-up or operating capital, no office or paid staff, the concept was evolving into an enterprise reaching communities far beyond a front yard next to the St. Croix River in Hudson.
The first official Little Free Library outside the Hudson area was posted by a bike path behind the Absolutely Art Gallery and Café Zoma on the east side of Madison in the summer of 2010. By the time of the Willy Street Fair in September, thousands of people had seen the Absolutely Art Library. The process of giving away Bol’s creations began to require a way to cover expenses to build many more than he could handle by himself. Amish carpenter Henry Miller of rural Cashton, Wisconsin became the primary craftsman, using wood recycled from a 100 year-old barn destroyed in a tornado.
Giving away Little Libraries and hand-crafted signs with official Little Free Library charter numbers began to generate curiosity and “word of mouth” story sharing. The www.littlefreelibrary.org website and a loyal cadre of volunteers made it possible to expand the organizational reach beyond the co-founders. The movement centered around the enthusiasm and commitment of stewards who hosted and often built their own neighborhood Libraries. Some small grants, informal partnerships and alliances began to have an impact on Little Free Library’s ability to keep up with demand.
And the rest…is history, documented in newspapers, blogs and broadcasts throughout the world. The year 2011 brought local, regional and national media attention to the backyard project that had become a movement. With nearly 400 Little Free Libraries across the U.S. by the end of the year, the founders knew it was time to become a formal, independent organization. In May, 2012, Little Free Library was officially established as a Wisconsin nonprofit corporation with a board of directors. In September, the Internal Revenue Service granted tax-exempt status.
*This goal was reached in August of 2012, a year and a half before our original target date. By January of 2015, the total number of registered Little Free Libraries in the world was conservatively estimated to be nearly 25,000, with thousands more being built.