The story behind those charming, doll-house sized little free libraries

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 13, 2013 - 1:38 PM

Little Free Library started out as a way for Todd Bol to honor his mother. Now, with thousands around the world, Bol is looking toward a broader mission.

“Do you remember your first kiss?”

Todd Bol is serious.

You’d swear you’d been talking about Little Free Library, his idea for tiny houses filled with books that are popping up in front yards all over the place. Actually, all over the world — which prompted a question about whether he’d ever imagined such a response.

He’s waiting for an answer, so you allow as how, yeah, you do remember, which delights him no end.

“You remember how your lips tingled?” he continued. “And how you didn’t know where this was going to go? And were amazed by it?”

That, he said, is how he remembers people approaching one of the first libraries he built in 2009 for a garage sale in Hudson, Wis. People cooed over it like a puppy, he said. There was something magical in the air. He knew he needed to build more. Whether they led to a fling or true love, well, he’d find out.

Today, barely four years later, there are more than 12,000 Little Free Libraries around the world. There are libraries in Ukraine, Italy, Japan, Pakistan, Brazil. Also Chanhassen, Hackensack and International Falls. At this rate, 70,000 could be up by 2016.

“Take a book, return a book,” is the guiding premise. Remember, we’re talking about books, a literary form whose demise has been determinedly predicted for quite some time.

“Have you ever tried to hug your Kindle?” Bol asks, again waiting for an answer. Not that he’s against digital tablets. In fact, he credits the success of Little Free Library to the social media of Skype, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail.

“People say, ‘You guys are the last bastion of the book,’ but I there’s an equilibrium that’s taking place,” he said. Kindles will do fine because they’re amazing ways to carry a library with you. But as a consequence, he thinks, “people will cherish actual books even more.”

As with seemingly everything in Todd Bol’s world, it’s win-win.

In tribute to his mother

But first, there was loss.

June Bol was the sort of mom who made her son’s friends always feel welcome.

“If within 10 minutes, you didn’t feel comfortable enough to open the refrigerator and make a sandwich, something was wrong,” Bol said. When she died, he gave everyone a necklace of a dancing figure inscribed with “June A. Bol, 1927 — .”

“There’s an Indian saying that says nobody really dies until all they’ve touched are gone,” he said, explaining the lack of a second date. “But you can’t believe they’re gone. You reach for the phone — you start dialing the phone — and then you remember.”

Because there always was some neighborhood kid at their kitchen table in Stillwater getting some tutoring help, Bol decided to honor his mom with something bookish, and so a small red schoolhouse filled with her books appeared on the lawn. “It was a spiritual gesture,” he said.

Take a book, return a book.

People did, then wanted others to do that on their lawns. After seeing the one he built for his wife’s garage sale snapped up, he realized the idea had legs.

He had the time to devote to the project, having been bounced a few years earlier from a company he founded to help international nurses gain U.S. accreditation. (His sense of global outreach eventually would come into play again, partnering this year with Books for Africa to send libraries to Ghana. He aims to pair classrooms there with U.S. students via Skype.)

With a friend, Rick Brooks of Madison, Wis., he began building the dollhouse-sized libraries. They channeled philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, famous for providing public libraries across the country. Little Free Library was set up as a nonprofit — “if I’d wanted to make a profit, I would have set it up as that” — and contracted with a few builders to assemble their prototypes.

From the beginning, Bol was committed to repurposing materials. He scarfs up wood from old barns, scrounges junkyards and garage sales. His latest scores include old lath from which tobacco leaves once hung and some wooden boxes used to haul cranberries. The library he built to honor his dad includes wood from their kitchen cutting board, his childhood bed and his grandma’s quilting rack.

In September 2011, there were five libraries installed in Minnesota. Today, there are more than 1,000 statewide.

Partners here, and Hollywood

Eddye Watkins helped position a little metal birdie on the roofline of her Little Free Library, one of the gewgaws that Bol hauls to installations to personalize a library. Watkins, a retired surgical nurse, wanted a library because the nearest Minneapolis library is several blocks away across Lake Street. “And there’s a bus stop half a block from here, so people are always walking back and forth,” she said. “I just want to encourage people to read more.”

Watkins actually was awarded a library for her service as a foster grandparent through Lutheran Social Service. That’s just one of the agencies that has paired up with Bol.

Little Free Library is working with AARP to provide a neighborhood book exchange to a group or a person who meets at least 20 times with a member of another generation, just a friendly chatty visit to bring people together. And don’t just think of fifth-graders visiting a nursing home, Bol said. There’s a lot to be gleaned in a conversation between, say, a baby boomer and an octogenarian.

Minneapolis Schools have a Books Around the Block project, in which Little Free Libraries are installed at elementary schools, particularly those without civic libraries nearby.

Then there’s the Victory Neighborhood Association, which is aiming to transform their streets into the best-read avenue ever. Recent “build” days have resulted in close to 30 tiny libraries ready to be installed around the north Minneapolis neighborhood.

Perhaps the most unexpected pairing has been with IFC, a cable channel promoting episodes of “The Spoils of Babylon,” in which actor Will Ferrell plays Eric Jonrosh, “the most famous author of all time,” in a parody of TV adaptations of epic novels. Little Free Libraries will be part of the scenery, serving as billboards of a sort for the fictional — or is it not so fictional? — production. The first episode premieres on IFC at 9 p.m. Jan. 9.

 

Looking toward the future

Bol, 57, is at something of a crossroads. Little Free Library clearly will continue to grow as a concept, but he’s thinking more about its larger mission — how the libraries can serve as fulcrums to connect people within communities, and communities across the globe. He has ideas. Now, the hunt is on for strategies, funding and the sense of serendipity that so far has remained close at hand.

Like that first kiss, he never imagined such success. The Wisconsin Historical Society has asked for his first library for its collections. Having a Little Free Library in a yard shows up as a feature in some real estate listings.

“In 2012, I was building these out on my deck,” he said, and he still builds prototypes and new models until they’re just right. You can order a library through the website, www.littlefreelibrary.org, with prices ranging from $175 to more than $600. He’s resisted requests/invitations from larger corporations to attach the libraries to their brands “because I’m afraid I’d lose my brand,” he said.

“Little Free Library is bigger than who we are because what it does is open up communities and expand the literary,” he said. “I mean, I think we just all want to be friends.”

 

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185









 

  • LITTLE FREE LIBRARY

    You can order a library through littlefreelibrary.org, with prices ranging from $175 to more than $600.

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