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'Little libraries' spread worldwide after strong start in Madison

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James P. Roberts

James P. Roberts, 58, of Madison drops off books and checks out the reading material in the Little Free Library outside of the Madison Police Department's South District police station.

James P. Roberts first noticed Madison’s proliferation of tiny libraries about five years ago, during bike rides around the city.

An avid reader and author, he was intrigued. The bookshelves were so interesting that he began noting where he saw the little libraries on a large map of Madison.

“I’ve been a book lover all my life,” Roberts said. “I used to hunt regular libraries, and this is just an extension of that.”

Madison now has more than 400 of the Little Free Library installations, by Roberts’ count. Of those, more than 200 are officially registered with the umbrella organization, which got its start here eight years ago and has grown into a nonprofit with 75,000 registered libraries in 85 countries worldwide.

Little Free Library at 1500 Rutledge St.

1500 Rutledge St.

Todd Bol created the first little library in 2009 in the back of his garage in Hudson, a city about 243 miles northwest from Madison. He did it to honor his mother, a former schoolteacher who died in 2001. Then he had a garage sale, and people kept asking him if they could buy it.

“I built it to celebrate my mom’s life,” he said. “I had a garage sale, and people got so excited and thrilled about (the library). That excitement became a passion for me, and Madison was the first key launching point.”

He teamed up with Rick Brooks of Madison and, by 2010, the two had created Little Free Library.

Little Free Library at 116 W. Washington Ave.

The Little Free Library at Grace Episcopal Church, 116 W. Washington Ave. (South Carroll Street side, facing Capitol).

The bookshelves, often creatively decorated to reflect the stewards’ literary interests or the houses they’re in front of, are full of free books for passersby. People can take as many as they wish, and leave some books behind for the next reader who comes along. The organization says millions of books are exchanged each year.

Map filling up

With only about half of Madison’s little libraries officially registered, it can be challenging to find them all. Roberts took it upon himself to find and document their locations, and he saw his map quickly filling up. To this day, he remains the only person with a comprehensive list of Little Free Library locations in Madison.

“The idea behind it is just so wonderful — a way to bring literature to people who don’t normally have it available,” said Roberts, 58, who eventually became involved in the organization. He is now one of the group’s Facebook page administrators, along with Megan Hanson, who works in its marketing and communications unit.

Little Free Libraries Map

James P. Roberts shows a map of Madison where he has located all of the Little Free Library locations. Roberts has been mapping the neighborhood book exchanges for five years.

One of Little Free Library’s missions is to increase book access to low-income children by providing books in neighborhoods where they are scarce. Its website cites research showing that children who grow up in homes without books are typically three years academically behind children who have books in their homes.

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“The only way we’ll have a strong democracy is if we have an educated society,” Bol said. “School systems just don’t have enough resources for that, and so it’s up to neighborhoods to step it up. Little Free Library is made of people who help their neighborhoods get educated.”

Building community

The group also aims to inspire a love for reading and build a sense of community. As more libraries are built, their stewards tell stories of many people they’ve met because of them, Roberts and Hanson said.

Hanson thinks it’s because the libraries offer a way to connect.

James P. Roberts Book

James P. Roberts has a signed copy of the book "The Little Free Library Book" where the author, Margret Aldrich, wrote a message to him that says "To James - keep on biking!"

“Entertainment is very private, and a growing feeling of isolation in neighborhoods is part of the reason why Little Free Libraries is so appealing,” she said. “They provide a thoughtful, fun way to not only say, ‘I love books,’ but to want to share them. There’s an unspoken need (the libraries) managed to fill. That’s a really powerful thing, and I think that’s why it spread.”

As the number of libraries have increased nationally and across the world in recent years, Bol thinks much of the organization’s success stems from how quickly it took off in Madison.

Little Free Library at 303-307 S. Paterson St.

Little Free Library on the Capital City Trail at 303-307 South Paterson Street in Madison.

“If we hadn’t had a success in Madison, we wouldn’t have continued,” he said.

As it’s grown over the years, Little Free Library leaders have started to look toward other ways to promote literacy. Programs include: the Impact Library Program, which leaves book-sharing boxes outside of libraries; Kids, Community & Cops, a program that helps officers and civic leaders build positive interactions with children by giving them books; and Action Book Club, a club that reads books on relevant topics and offers participants a chance to do related community service work.

Bol also hopes that more little libraries will continue to be built. He’d like to see one in every neighborhood, everywhere.

“I want to see it ignited around the world. We all do better when we all read better, and this shows that people are taking charge in their communities,” he said. “Wherever people are, there shall be books.”

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