Decorative, Whimsical “Library Boxes” Appeal To Readers Of All Ages
By Karla Wall
If you’re an avid reader, you know the feeling of addiction: There are never enough books around, and there’s a feeling of panic as you finish a good book — where’s the next great read coming from? There’s a new trend among area homeowners, businesses and civic organizations that not only helps readers quench their thirst for new books, but also helps introduce youngsters or new readers to the joys of reading. Called reader feeders, library boxes or little free libraries, the birdhouse-like boxes are appearing on curbsides and in businesses all over the parish. Small Box, Big Benefits According to the Little Free Library website, the movement began in 2009, when artisan Todd Bol of Wisconsin built a model of an old one-room schoolhouse in honor of his mother, a teacher who loved to read. He filled it with books, and set it on a post in his front yard. It proved to be so popular that he built several more, and, eventually, with the help of Rick Brooks, a community development educator with a background in social marketing, the Little Free Library movement took shape. The movement’s goal was to take other literacy and book-sharing programs (public libraries, book-sharing stations in coffee houses, etc.) to neighborhoods and communities in a grass-roots movement Demand grew as word spread, and the movement quickly became an all-out enterprise. Brooks and Bol hired an Amish carpenter, Henry Miller of Cashton, Wisc., who fashioned boxes from wood recycled from a 100-year-old barn. The Little Free Library Movement became a full-fledge non-profit organization in 2012, and was granted 501 (c) status in 2013. In 2015, the number of registered Little Free Libraries in the country was almost 25,000; the first month of this year saw the total rise to over 36,000. The popularity of the boxes isn’t surprising. There’s the ease and convenience of having a book repository, however small, at the end of your street, or in front of a house a few yards down from yours. There’s the advantage of having a small selection to choose from, as opposed to being overwhelmed with thousands, perhaps millions, of titles at a large public library. And, of course, there’s the freedom from worrying about return deadlines and fines. The little libraries don’t depend on government funding, or cut back services due to a lack or lowering of said funding. This might be a good place to mention, though, that the boxes obviously can’t replace public libraries, nor, again obviously, are they meant to. Public libraries, of course, offer not only a vast number of titles, but specialized books and rare books. They offer research opportunities and research assistance, computer and video, and audio books, to name just a few benefits and services. But in a time when a sense of community is sorely needed, the need for community-based activity is greater than ever, and the need to promote literacy is greater than ever, these reader feeders are the right idea at the right time, and a wonderful way for communities to share knowledge and introduce neighbors to the joys of reading. And, besides, they’re just plain fun. Owners and sponsors are free to design and decorate their own boxes, so the variety is endless, and boxes are usually cute, whimsical and fun. There are boxes fashioned as bird feeders with shake roofs, and one online photo shows a library box shaped as an old 1940s era phone booth. They can even be fashioned as miniature homes designed to mirror the home they sit in front of. The boxes can have steeply pitched roofs or flat tin roofs. They’re decorated in bright colors (one online photo shows a tie-dyed paint job with red psychedelic-style letters, a la the early 1970s, spelling out Borrow A Book), and can be fronted by large panes of glass or wooden doors. Boxes are created, stocked and maintained by the owners of the properties on which they sit, or by the sponsors who pay for having the box placed in a business or public area. Some are specialized — mystery, science fiction, etc., and some have a little of anything and everything. Since visitors can take a book and replace it with another, or simply donate books, the title selection varies from day to day. These little book boxes can be anything the property owner or neighborhood desires. SWLA’s Little Libraries The Little Free Library movement has definitely made its way into SWLA. The Sulphur Parks and Recreation Dept. partnered with the Calcasieu Parish Library System to install a Little Free Library box in the Grove At Heritage Square in 2013.
Built by Karl Matte and decorated by local artist Eric Manuel, the little green birdhouse-like structure is the first Little Free Library box to go up in the SWLA area. And it’s in the perfect place, offering park visitors a choice of reading materials to be enjoyed under the shade on one of the park’s many benches. Local resident Joe Torcivia says he was inspired to put up a library box in front of his home at 412 Woodruff St. after seeing one on a home on Shell Beach Dr. “I saw the box (on Shell Beach Dr.), and I thought it was a great idea,” Torcivia says. “I’m an avid reader, thanks to my mom, who was an avid reader, as well. I thought this was a great way to share that passion and build a sense of community.” Torcivia discussed the idea with his neighbors Jack and Susan Blevins, who were extremely supportive, going so far as to help build the box from scrap lumber. “We started building it in October of last year,” says Torcivia, “and it was finished and put up by Thanksgiving.” The box is 2 ft. long, 1 ft. deep, and 2 ½ ft. high. It holds two rows of books — hardcovers on bottom, and paperbacks on top. People can use the box any way they want, says Torcivia. One can take a book and keep it, take a book and return it, or take a book and replace it with another.
Torcivia says the box has been a definite hit. “I’ve been surprised by how much it’s been used,” he says. “It seems that every other day, books are taken out or put in.” Giving The Gift Of Literacy, Spreading A Little Cheer The Calcasieu Parish School System is using the reader feeder idea as a way to spread not only the gift of literacy and the joy of reading, but also to bring a bit of light, laughter and fun to children in areas where those things aren’t often found. Under the program, second- and third-year students in the CPSS College St. T&I Center build, paint and decorate reader feeders — sponsored by individuals, businesses and organizations — that are placed throughout the community. The first box went up recently at CC’s Coffee House, says parish school system literacy leader Sandie MacKnight. The idea for the program took shape when the school system received a Striving Readers Literacy Grant, says MacKnight. “We wanted to do something with the grant that would be perpetuated,” says MacKnight. “And we wanted to do something that would get literacy out there. We can’t solve all of the problems facing children, but we can put literacy in their hands.” Planning for the program’s implementation began in September of last year, says MacKnight, and it began in October. Sponsors pay to have the box built and placed, and keep it stocked and maintained. The boxes aren’t borrow-a-book libraries, says MacKnight. “They’re not an exchange. It’s a giveaway. Kids are free to keep the books they pick up out of the boxes.” The second box went up late last month in the waiting room of the Dept. of Child and Family Services on Kirkman St. Sponsored by Jean and Jim Evans, the box has three shelves, and is painted in bright, cheery primary colors — dark blue body, red roof, and bright yellow glass-paned doors with white knobs.
It bears the logo of the CPSS, as well as that of the parish school system’s T&I program. The cheerful look of the box, says Jean Evans, was definitely what the waiting room called for. As a volunteer for Family and Youth’s Court Appointed Special Advocate program, Evans says, she’s a frequent visitor to the office, and it’s not exactly cheerful for kids. “It’s a typical government building room,” she says. “It’s such a depressing room for kids. It offered little in the way of things for children to do. It’s always bugged me that you’d see children there with nothing to do.” The library box, she says, yielded immediate results. “We put a couple of books into the box, and right away, one of the kids said, ‘Can we look at those books?’ I said, ‘Yes, and you can keep (the book).’ That amazed them, that they could keep something. A few children took a book, and before long, they began to dialogue with each other, asking ‘What book do you like?’ and “What are you reading about?’ They began to help each other choose books.” Placing the box, says Evans, really called attention to the need to brighten up the room, and plans are underway to paint a mural in the room, as well as for a few other decorative projects. Of course, says Evans, the box isn’t just for decoration; as a former teacher, she believes strongly in promoting literacy, which is what drew her to the project in the first place. The Evanses plan to put up a box in the offices of Family and Youth Counseling Agency, as well. MacKnight says that there are, in fact, several boxes planned for the near future. Boxes are slated to go up at the Women’s Shelter, Dolby Elementary, and the visiting center at the parish prison. The Junior League of Lake Charles, says MacKnight, plans to put up two boxes next year. Though these boxes will cater to young children, MacKnight says she’d like to see high school boxes with young adult books placed throughout the area, as well.
The grant runs out at the end of this year, but MacKnight is hopeful that there will be community support to keep the effort going. For more information about the Little Free Library Program, visit littlefreelibrary.org. For more information on the CPSS program, to donate books for the program, or to sponsor a box, call MacKnight at 217-4200, ext. 2719.
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