Steward Spotlight: Cate O’Toole

By Megan Hanson

Pictured above is Cate’s newer, bigger Little Free Library, rebuilt after the first one was burned down.

Cate O’Toole came home in March after a weekend away celebrating her birthday to find her Little Free Library reduced to ashes. Fortunately, a passerby had noticed the fire before it could spread and called the Fire Department. Cate’s home and surrounding trees were untouched. Only the library was destroyed.

Cate, a book lover and LFL enthusiast, was devastated and upset about the wreckage. “The thought of anyone burning books feels so viscerally horrible, but I try to remind myself that it could have been much, much worse,” Cate said. Despite investigators taking the incident seriously and treating it as arson, the culprits have yet to be identified. With little to go on, the situation will likely remain unsolved.

From the ashes of the burned library came an outpour of support from the community and a new Little Free Library for Cate.

What happened after the fire?

After the fire, people from all around town reached out to say how sad they were about the loss and how much they’d enjoyed visiting the library. We had someone literally knock on our door and say, “You’re going to rebuild, right?” So while the loss and the fire were terrible, it sort of cemented for me why I wanted to have the library.

One person, I guess, felt like the library was not a thing that mattered but many, many more people obviously thought it was special and valuable and important. And I agree! This is a very long way of saying, I knew right away that the library wasn’t over.

How did you rebuild your library and pick out new designs?

My secret weapon is that my husband is an architect and a woodworker. His brother is also a carpenter, so I’m pretty spoiled for support. My husband fully designed the first iteration, as well as another library for a neighbor, and I felt confident letting him run with his idea for our new version, too.

I think for him there was a certain feeling of defiance in the face of the arson, of wanting to be bigger, better, MORE than the first design, so it’s quite a bit larger now! I think we’re going to install some additional shelves to help fill up the interior volume a bit more efficiently, but overall I’m a very happy client.

What has surprised you the most since starting a little library?

The huge outpouring of support after the fire was a little surprising, but wonderful. Other than that, I think the biggest surprise has been the way the library sort of takes on a life of its own. I love seeing other stewards really program their libraries, with themes and a social media presence and highlighting various books week to week. I aspire to be that kind of steward but in reality, I’m pretty hands-off.

The library lives outside my house but it’s not my library if that makes sense. I don’t want to risk disrupting the magic by trying to control too much. Folks who stop by keep it organized in a way that feels intuitive and easy. Sometimes people leave little trinkets or art or messages, which is so much fun to discover. We have people who leave canned goods and non-perishable food, and it’s great to see neighbors caring for each other in that way.

Learn how you can start a Little Free Library for your neighborhood or read more in the Steward Spotlight series!

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