Steward Spotlight: Talena Lachelle Queen

By Megan Hanson

Talena Queen and community members gathered around a Little Free Library book-sharing box.

This post is part of Little Free Library’s Steward Spotlight series! This series delves into the diversity of steward experience and uncovers the challenges, surprises, and best practices of Little Free Library volunteer stewards around the world.

Talena Lachelle Queen has an ambitious goal: to put a Little Free Library book-sharing box in 44 public parks throughout Paterson, New Jersey. She has 11 Libraries in place already. She’s learned a lot about what it takes to get a citywide project off the ground and how to maintain high-traffic Little Libraries that go through a lot of books. We reached out to her to share her experience, and here’s what she had to say!

How long have you had a Little Free Library?

“We (the community) currently have 11 Libraries in place since we placed the first one in June of 2017 (there are 8 in storage awaiting above freezing weather.) The love-at-first-sight moment for me and Little Free Library book-sharing boxes happened in Lake Forest Park, Washington where I lived before returning to my hometown of Paterson. Unlike Lake Forest Park, Paterson has lots of asphalt, concrete and renters. I wanted to put up a few Little Libraries, but the reality of inner-city living presented challenges.

“After some contemplation, I realized that the perfect space for the Libraries was the public parks. As you may guess, getting the city to see my vision was an additional challenge. I made lots of phone calls and sent lots of emails. The ideas of free books and the honor system were contrary to what many people believe about a densely-populated city. But eventually, my city agreed to allow the Little Free Libraries in the parks, which caused me to dance the kind of dance that is usually reserved for solitary moments!

“My first thought was to put in three or four Libraries. My second thought was to put in 15 Libraries over the course of three years. To make sure that I had permission from the city for the span of the project, I wrote a request asking for permission to put one or more Libraries in each of the 44 parks in the city. The city said yes!”

How did you get this project off the ground and find volunteer stewards?

“The project has really taken on a life of its own and grown faster than I’d imagined! The first three Libraries were made possible by a grant from the Paterson Education Association, of which I am a member. My fellow citizens volunteered to sponsor Libraries 4, 5, 6, and 7. Library number 8 was sponsored by Habitat for Humanity, and Libraries 9 – 18 were sponsored by a city program called Municipal Alliance Prevention Program. (If you’re wondering how to get a grant to start a Little Free Library, check out our guide to community grants.)

“Paterson’s Clean Communities program donated their labor to install the posts. The City of Paterson Department of Public Works volunteered their time and skills to make any repairs that are needed. Retired school librarians and people who both love books and own a lot of them regularly donate to stock the Libraries.

“Community organizations have answered my call to host literacy-based events at the Little Free Library sites. Individuals and organizations have adopted city parks and pledged to keep them clean because the Little Free Libraries are there. People (like my mother!) have made sure that the events had ample baked treats. The designs on the Libraries are all done by local artists who donated their talent to the project. Local authors have donated their titles to the Libraries, as well.

“So far we’ve run literacy-based events like:

  • Pajama Party Storytime. Families came out to the park dressed in pajamas to listen to stories. We had big chocolate chip cookies in honor of the little mouse in our featured story. The event was held at two parks during the week.
  • S’more Books. Seven parks held storytimes simultaneously and made s’mores while enjoying the stories.
  • Day of the Babies.  The 23rd annual celebration added a Little Library and free books to the already very festive day. This is an annual event where everything that would delight a child happens: book bags, school supplies, dance contests, free bikes, trophies, bouncy houses…
  • Park Clean-Ups. After gathering some volunteers to clean the park, we’d “open” the Library for use.
  • Build It Day. People come together to build Libraries and build community. The day is intended to create more stakeholders and increase the momentum of people donating in various ways.” (Little Free Library Kits are great for events like this!)

What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced with your Library?

“Putting up the first Library was the biggest challenge. Overcoming that challenge was an act of divine intervention. The opposition told me that God asked her to stop talking and just listen to me. At the end of our conversation she said, ‘Yes. This is the right thing to do.’”

A young reader sits down with a new book discovered in a Library!

What kind of books move the fastest in your Libraries?

“Children’s books, especially board books, and young adult novels move the fastest. Each Library has a certain audience.

“For example, one Library consumes more mystery books for adults while another consumes more vampire-like stories. 

“Two-hundred books per week are distributed by way of the Little Free Libraries. Donations come in bulk from community members, and there are contributions made directly to the Libraries themselves, too.”

What surprised you the most about being a Little Free Library steward?

“I am surprised about how much genuine love and support comes from my community. Being a steward here means empowering others to be part of the project. My Paterson is incredibly receptive and amazingly happy about having the Libraries in our community. The first one went up in late June, and we have already exceeded my three-year goal!”

If you could give one piece of advice to someone thinking of starting a Library, what would it be?

“My advice to other stewards is: smile often and say yes to help. The most important part of being a steward for multiple Libraries is to encourage the community to be stakeholders. For me, creating stakeholders meant getting folks to adopt the parks. Networking is very important and saying yes to someone’s idea is imperative.

“I wanted the Libraries in the parks because, as a poet and middle school language arts teacher, I knew that if I could make reading both accessible and popular that I could help to shift paradigms that are directly related to low literacy. Increased literacy can change a person’s life trajectory. There is no place more evident of the need for increased literacy than the inner city.”

Read more in the Steward Spotlight series, or learn how to start your own Little Free Library book-sharing box.

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