To promote literacy and community engagement, Carver County is connecting with Little Free Library, a nonprofit organization that advocates free book exchanges for people all over the world.
"The idea is tied to local neighborhoods like Carver County but is also worldwide," said Todd Bol, cofounder and executive director of the group. "We are hoping it is a model that absolutely catches fire to the rest of the country."
Little Free Library is mission-driven and designed to connect communities across the United States and abroad.
"As a nonprofit, our goal is to promote literacy, the love of reading, and these free book exchanges that we have on a global basis," Bol said.
The mini-libraries are most often found in people's yards or in front of businesses. They come in all shapes and sizes and let people take a book or drop one off from a collection books. A typical one might measure 19-by-23-by-16-inches.
Little Free Library is located in communities all over the world, from Africa to Rome, and it allows neighbors to share books and connect. The organization began in 2009 and has grown tremendously since then. About 6,000 Little Free Libraries are in the United States, with about 600 being added each month.
Bol attended the Eighth Annual Hooked on Books event at Chanhassen High School earlier this month to give books to children and to talk about opportunities to get involved.
The organization also has donated one Little Free Library, designed as a schoolhouse, which soon will stand in Carver -- one of the cities in the county that does not have a branch of the Carver County Library.
"We were at the Hooked on Books event for awareness, and we are hoping that Carver County will place more libraries throughout the county," Bol said. "We are pushing close to 700 Little Free Libraries in Minnesota."
Hooked on Books
Mary Erickson, community engagement manager for Carver County, said the goal is to place six or seven of the mini-libraries throughout the county with the grant money they received from Minnesota Valley Electric Cooperative. She said they will start installing them in the spring.
"Little Free Library are big community builders," she said. "They bring people out, and they get people talking. Kids and adults get into it."
Close to 2,000 people attended the Hooked on Books event, Erickson said.
The Community Education Department provided one Little Free Library to be given away in a drawing at the event. Community members were asked to include why they were interested in owning one in their submission. About 30 people registered.
"The only reason we went to Hooked on Books was to look at them," winner Rae-Ann Vandeputte said. "Then we put our name in the drawing and won. I'm really excited."
She and her husband moved to Victoria, Minn., two years ago, and said their new Little Free Library will help them connect with their neighbors.
"It's a nice way to draw people out and to get a little bit more connected. I think any community could use that," she said.
Vandeputte said it's not always easy to find good books for her two children and said she likes the book-sharing aspect of the Little Free Library.
"We have a lot of kids in our neighborhood, and I think it will be a big focus for the kids in the beginning," she said.
Room for creativity
Michelle Eggan, of Cologne, is an artist, illustrator and designer who designed a Little Free Library that was on display at the Hooked on Books event.
"I think literacy is a gateway to improve learning and broadening children's understanding of the world," Eggan said. "Encouraging reading and learning is an important tool for all people and all children. It opens up their world."
Eggan, who is also an advocate for children's literacy in the county, said an initiative of this kind is important for a rural area like Carver County. If children couldn't travel to visit a library, they would be able to access books from a Little Free Library in their own small town, she said.
"The Hooked on Books program offers children free books and an access to free books in their own neighborhood," she said. "It's a wonderful thing for the community to start doing."
Eggan said books have helped her as an artist, and she thinks it's important for every child to have access to good literature.
"This is a really great initiative," Eggan said. "It sets an example for how this can be done and how to be a part of it, and hopefully the library will motivate others to do the same."
Books for Africa
Little Free Library is working with another nonprofit organization, Books For Africa, in order to continue the effort overseas. Anyone can purchase a Little Free Library for $1,000 to be shipped to Africa. "The fee covers the library's shipment overseas as well as $1,000 of books," Bol said.
Students at Hudson High School in Hudson, Wis. are in the process of building 12 Little Free Libraries that will be sent to Africa.
"The wood-shop class is building the Little Free Library, the art class will paint them and the media class is documenting the process," Bol said.
The goal is to connect students in Africa with students in Hudson. The libraries will be tracked on an online global map that can be accessed on the Little Free Library website.
"It's a hybrid pen-pal book club where people read together, write stories together, communicate via Skype, Facebook and blogs, and have this connection on an ongoing basis," Bol said.
A networking tool
"I think we have a strong primal need to connect with our communities," Bol said. "If I were to meet you at a Little Free Library, we would talk about books and have a comfortable conversation. It's a comfort zone of conversation about a shared interest."
All Little Free Libraries and their whereabouts are located on littlefreelibrary.org. Anyone who would like to visit one can find the locations online.
"In the first year, they [Little Free Libraries] were popping up everywhere," he said. "Now we are networking. We are trying to use that tool to do good things around the world."
Candice Wheeler is a University of Minnesota intern on assignment to the Star Tribune.