Announcing the Winners of the 2023 Todd H. Bol Awards for Outstanding Achievement

By Sarah Nelson

Little Free Library’s late founder, Todd H. Bol, believed strongly in the power of individuals (and especially Little Free Library stewards) to change the world through acts of kindness. We hear stories every day of outstanding stewards who repair others’ little libraries; who have created networks of book-sharing boxes; or who work tirelessly to strengthen the sense of community in their area. The Todd H. Bol Awards for Outstanding Achievement are meant to honor these stewards who go above and beyond. Meet this year’s winners!

Valerie Janis

Valerie Janis is a member of the Bay Mills Anishinaabe community and lives and raises her family with her husband in Pine Ridge Reservation. She has worked at the Oglala Lakota College Woksape Tipi Library for three years as the Outreach Resource Technician. She has initiated and completed projects such as adding language and cultural references in the library space, reorganization and inventorying the library collections, redesigning the library webpage, creating virtual library programs and working with Little Free Library to distribute books through the communities of the Pine Ridge Reservation. She completed her MLIS degree with San Jose State University last spring. She continues to come up with innovative ways to connect to the community and promote literacy.

“I started the Little Free Library because Pine Ridge Reservation does not have access to books and it is important to support literacy in our communities. The Little Free Library has impacted the Reservation and encouraged people to build their own home libraries, [and] we have given over 2,500 books to people. [The libraries] have given me hope when I have seen the reception of the community and the enthusiasm for the new books I add to the boxes.”

John Manuel Newland

John Manuel Newland started doing construction work in his family’s construction business as a summer job and as a way to stay busy. He found that he enjoyed working with his hands and looked for ways that he could use his skills to help the community. The first Little Free Library John built was dedicated to a long-term volunteer of Books For Keeps, and he has since built book-sharing boxes for local schools.

“For me, apart from the satisfaction of building a product that I can be proud of and knowing I am helping my community, it has been interesting to understand that if you want to do something, you might just have to make it happen on your own. I had plenty of help…but there were so many times I could have just said, ‘Well, looks like it’s not going to work out,’ and left it at that. And maybe it was because I had the extra time, and I don’t like to be bored, but I really do enjoy the physical and mental labor of it.”

Dynamite Book Club

Taylor Park, Layla Hahn, Susan Zhang, and Alexandra Law started the Dynamite Book Club as a community service project to help support the communities in Santa Ana, who didn’t have access to libraries due to the COVID-19 closures.

“We had no idea how challenging it was at first, and then realized how it brought us together as well. We enjoyed the physical work of building, sanding, and painting these boxes and felt amazing to present them to places that needed some extra joy.”

The group says starting the club and building the libraries helped them realize that books bring the community together, as it provides a great platform to support all communities who seek literacy resources. Since the project began, the Santa Ana Zoo has grown their education program through literacy and the arts, as all of the boxes are hand-painted by the Dynamite Book Club.

Tiffany Lester

Tiffany Lester of Regina Kindness Rocks started a Little Free Library so that children within the surrounding vulnerable community would have access to books and materials they need to succeed. Tiffany says the library has been a popular spot for children’s books and novels and that the library’s outreach has expanded to include items that may be needed within the community to supplement the rising cost of living. With the addition of toys, non-perishable foods, clean clothing, diapers, and other supplies, this library has become an integral part of the community structure and support system.

Tiffany says the Little Free Library book-sharing box has impacted her in many ways, but her favorite aspect is the community connections she’s been able to create. She’s met many neighbors who have either benefited from the resources the library provides or have become part of the impact by sharing their own donations.

“I am an adopted female who also happens to be mentally disabled, so my connection to my own identity and community have been strained from the start. Establishing Little Free Libraries as all-access resource hubs has given me the chance to connect with my neighbors on a level that allows for the development of my personal relationships and an ever-expanding connection to community and identity. Being a Little Free Library steward helps me reaffirm my worth as a person and change-maker within a sometimes cold and stagnant world.”

Mai Le

Mai Le started a gift economy group in 2019 as a way to connect people to their neighbors, while also helping to fulfill needs and reduce environmental impact. The Little Free Library—the first chartered Little Free Library in the city—is an extension of that effort, offering a consistent place to offer and find resources. I truly believe we all have something to give, and all have a need that can be fulfilled by others. Daly City is very diverse, with more than half of residents being immigrants. For some in the community, the Little Free Library was their first exposure to a book-sharing box, and they’ve expressed how wonderful it is to see something like this. 

Mai Le says given that her city is about 60 percent Asian and 20 percent Hispanic, she takes the commitment to being a Read in Color library seriously. 

“I always have books by BIPOC authors for kids and adults in the library. It is hard to know the impact of this in our community, but I believe everyone deserves to see themselves in a book, and that we will read more when we do.

Mai Lee says she’s always recognized the power books have to connect neighbors. “I have always known that books connect people, but being a steward has shown me more facets of that, and made it real in my day-to-day life. Through being a steward I am slowly shaping the community I want to live and raise children in, and that is so rewarding to me.”

San Diego County Library

In March 2021, San Diego County’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to install Little Free Libraries (LFLs) across San Diego County to boost literacy in low-income and communities of color.  With the pandemic further exacerbating the lack of access to education and reading, LFLs provide an invaluable chance for children not to lose their reading skills and to continue to learn during periods of isolation. To date, 43 LFLs have been installed with an estimated amount of over 20,000 books distributed to San Diego County communities as part of this effort, which provides 24/7 access to diverse and inclusive books. The first LFL was installed in September 2021 and SDCL plans on installing 57 more LFLs for a total of 100 Little Free Libraries offering access to books throughout the county.

The project has three main objectives: nurturing literacy in San Diego County, exposing community members – especially students and children – to diverse and culturally inclusive literature, and fostering relationships among families.

“Serving as the LFL Program Manager for San Diego County Library from the inception of the LFL Initiative in 2021 to 2023 has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my 21 years with the County.  We have been honored with the 2022 NaCo National Association of Counties Award 2022 and the San Ysidro School District, Distinguished Champion Award, 2022.  As a former elementary school teacher, literacy is in my blood, so knowing that I actively contributed to the installations of numerous LFLs throughout San Diego County has given me a sense of accomplishment and legacy that no one can take away.  What I treasure the most are the partnerships and relationships that have grown from this one little initiative.  I have witnessed and I know that one book, one person, one little free library, and one community can make a whole lot of change…and that’s what little free libraries do every time one gets planted.”  -Laura Zuckerman, Librarian II, Former LFL Program Manager 2021-2023

Read about past recipients of the Todd H. Bol Awards for Outstanding Achievement, and learn more about starting a Little Free Library of your own.

Skip to content