According to research conducted at the University of Tennessee, one of the most successful ways to improve the reading achievement of children is to increase their access to books in their homes. Yet, according to the US Department of Education, up to 61% of low-income families to do not have any books for children in their homes.
Little Free Library is a nonprofit organization on a mission to bridge that gap. A little free library is exactly what the name suggests: a public, free book exchange. Little Free Libraries of different shapes and sizes can be found in all different locations, but commonly they are small, outdoor wooden boxes of books. They operate on the “take a book, return a book” principle. Anyone may visit a little free library, take a book, or leave a book to share.
Little Free Library aims to provide 24/7 access to books and encourage a love of reading in readers of all ages and backgrounds, especially in areas where books are scarce. Anyone can start a little free library. Little Free Library is also about real people sharing their favorite books with their communities.
As of November, 2016, there were over 50,000 Little Free Libraries spanning all 50 states and over 70 different countries. Four of them happen to be right here in Mint Hill.
Little Free Library # 18526 is maintained by retiree Bob McElfresh, who has lived in Mint Hill with his family since 2006. McElfresh first heard about Little Free Library in a newspaper article and thought it would be a great way to encourage reading in his pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. “I realized that we have a lot of walkers in our neighborhood and they might be users of such a convenient library,” says McElfresh.
Just down the street in an adjacent neighborhood, you’ll find Little Free Library # 32409 maintained by retiree Cindy Osborne, who has lived in Mint Hill since 1999. Osborne credits her grandkids in large part with inspiring her to ask her husband to build her a Little Free Library. “We wanted the kids to have reading and books a part of their visits to our house,” says Osborne, who also frequents the local public library. “All those in our family are the stewards of our library – even the 4- and 6-year-old granddaughters!” says Osborne, who notes that her grandchildren love checking the box for books left by other readers. “We take care of the changing inventory and the physical home of our little library. We tell others about the idea of the libraries, and we’ve met many of our neighbors through the library.”
Osborne credits another unexpected source for her inspiration to start a Little Free Library: her declining eyesight. As Osborne’s eyesight worsened, she found herself unable to read the small fonts in many of her printed books. “I am now on a tablet because of my eyesight,” says Osborne, “but I still want to gift real books to others and keep printed materials in our hands. I love the feel and experience of a book. I want to share it with others.”
McElfresh’s little library, installed in 2014, sits in his front yard next to his mailbox. Little Free Library’s web site provides building instructions and prefabricated kits for purchase, but “You don’t have to buy the kit to build the box,” says McElfresh. “The website has photos of unconventional designs that work just fine for the purpose.”
A woodworking hobbyist, McElfresh built his little free library from scavenged materials and scraps left over from other construction projects. “The glass in the door, for example, came from an entertainment center that someone put out for trash,” says McElfresh. “Basically, I built the door around the glass, then built the box to fit the door. The whole thing cost me about $10.00!” Osborne’s little free library was also built by her woodworker husband from materials he collected.
After the library was built, McElfresh stocked it with books from Goodwill, Julia’s Bookstore and his own collection and printed notices about it and distributed them to all 116 mailboxes in his neighborhood. “Since then, it has been pretty much self-perpetuating with donations from neighbors, family and friends,” says McElfresh. These days he relies on the social networking site Next Door to spread the word to his neighbors whenever the books get refreshed.
Many people worry that people will “steal” the books. As the Little Free Library notes on their web site, “You can’t steal a free book.” “It’s free to everyone,” notes McElfresh. “It’s nice if they have books to add to the collection so others can read them, but it’s not required, and I certainly don’t note who donates and who doesn’t.”
Although McElfresh admits that the selection of entertaining books that tend to fill little libraries are unlikely to inspire the sort of conversations that will solve the world’s problems, to him, Little Free Library is more than the sum of the potboilers, thrillers and mystery novels they contain. “Ben Franklin certainly had the right idea when he and his friends established the first free library in Philadelphia,” says McElfresh. “I believe that free libraries in general are a critical element of a free democracy.”
Moreover, McElfresh is proud of the way the Little Free Library has brought his neighbors together. “I probably would not know nearly as many neighbors as I do if I wasn’t the steward,” says McElfresh. “Many times neighbors have stopped to thank me for the library, and that developes into a short conversation about whatever is on their mind. It may be that neighbors have met each other at the box, which would be great.”
Visit a Little Free Library in Mint Hill:
Charter #18526: 3933 Singletree Road
Charter # 32409: 5617 Grist Mill Lane
Charter #57995: 11501 Bain School Road
Charter #31423: 10129 Hanging Moss Trail
Learn more about starting your own Little Free Library at https://littlefreelibrary.org/