Steward Spotlight: Neighbor to Neighbor Literacy Project

By Megan Hanson

This incredible Little Free Library in Jackson Park, Chicago, has 50+ names of African American authors laser-cut on its sides and back. Image credit: @n2nliteracyproject.

“We were blown away by the positive response. We believe that a citywide network of Little Free Library [book boxes] can help to create positive interactions and engagement across all our diverse neighborhoods and can help break down barriers between communities. We know that in some cases, access to books can be life-changing and can rewrite someone’s story.”

Little Free Library steward Nancy Wulkan was not expecting to start a nonprofit organization this year; nor was she expecting to be at the center of a rapidly-growing network of little libraries on the west and south sides of Chicago, Illinois. But after Nancy saw the big impact her first two little libraries had on her neighborhood, she was hooked.

“I live in a high rise in the heart of Chicago. I do not have a yard but I do have two public parks directly across the street. My husband and I donated two Little Free Library book exchanges to these parks. We have been blown away by the positive response and the impact that they make in our neighborhood,” says Nancy.

Getting approval for those first two little libraries was a challenge, though. Nancy had to navigate the complex Chicago Park District structure and sell both local and top-level officials on the expected benefits of the project. Once the officials understood the big impact of little libraries, though, everyone worked together to get them installed.

One of Nancy’s first two libraries (#73697) decorated tp celebrate its first birthday at its location in Lake Shore Park! Image credit: @n2nliteracyproject.

Since getting past that first hurtle, Nancy started a nonprofit called the Neighbor to Neighbor Literacy Project (N2N) and has helped place more than 10 free library boxes around Chicago. “Our libraries are distributed in several different neighborhoods—two have Chicago Public Library branches that are closed for renovations, making the presence of a Little Free Library even more important!” says Nancy. “I work with local residents to identify good locations and to recruit a local, passionate steward to manage the book box. I love being a steward myself, but I realize I can’t manage my own two little libraries and run around this big city managing these other boxes, as well.”

One local steward Nancy worked with is Veronica Kyle. Veronica applied to receive one of ten commemorative little libraries that we donated through our Impact Library Program back in May as part of our year-long 10th Anniversary Celebration.

Shortly after putting up her Little Free Library in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, Veronica told us, “As one of the recipients of the Impact Library Program, my family and neighbors are delighted to have this opportunity to promote the joy of reading a book to everyone who passes by our beautiful little library. In the past few weeks dozens of neighbors and others have taken a book or stopped to learn more about the library.”

The Impact Little Free Library placed in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago by Veronica Kyle.

Nancy has learned a lot since she put up her first two little libraries #66264 and #73697 in July 2018. (If you want to pay them a visit, find them on the Little Free Library world map!) We asked her to share what she’s learned to help other Little Free Library volunteer stewards follow in her footsteps.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

“The biggest challenge was navigating through a multi-tiered park structure that required approval from both local officials and higher-ups. In the process of getting my first two libraries in the ground, it took me nearly five months to hear a ‘yes!’ The process has been shortened somewhat since then. I continue to present ideas to the Chicago Park District on how to further streamline the approval process.”

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

“What has surprised me most is the amount of people I have met because of my role as a steward and the myriad ways in which Little Free Library [book boxes] impact people’s lives and create positive ripples that spread across the community. That’s the whole reason we started the city-wide project.”

What type of books move the fastest in your little libraries?

“Children’s books move the fastest through the libraries, so much so that I have just gained approval for a second Little Free Library for children in Lake Shore Park in the playground area. New releases are also popular, obviously. Even though my two little libraries are only a block apart, they each attract different readers. I am finding I have ‘regulars’ who stop by to see if we’ve got anything for their particular interests, which fascinates me.”

Do you have advice for people who want to place little libraries in public parks in their towns?

“My advice for someone wanting to install a Little Free Library in a park is to be persistent, collaborative, and very patient. Highlight how a Little Free Library fits with your local park or public entity’s core values and mission. I am known by one of my park advisory council presidents as ‘the woman who won’t accept ‘no.” With each little library, I gain the support and input of locals who know their neighborhoods and parks. That way, we can create the best proposal for park officials in that area.”

Want to know what Nancy’s working on next? Follow N2N Literacy Project on Instagram! Read about another inspiring steward, Talena Queen of Paterson, New Jersey, who’s placed dozens of little libraries in public parks. Or learn how you can start a Little Free Library book exchange! This post is part of Little Free Library’s Steward Spotlight series.

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