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Honoring the Honor System



Indianapolis's newest libraries are more wood and nails than brick and mortar.

The city is not reverting to frontier-era construction standards of its westward-pressing settler forebears. The latest trend in book lending is Little Free Libraries --bird house-like containers of paperbacks and other used titles governed by the straightforward instruction of "take a book, leave a book."

More than 30 of the pole-mounted wooden boxes stuffed with books have popped up across the Indianapolis metropolitan area over the past few years. Eight more are going up in Plainfield next week.

Little Free Libraries have been called "Houses of Stories" or "Habitats for the Humanities." They operate on the honor system, without any cards, due dates or renewals. People can find something new to read or donate books that they no longer have room for.

Of course, if you take a book without leaving one, there are no librarians to police you. Little Free Libraries--the book trading posts or pop-up libraries that started in Wisconsin five years ago but have since spread to at least 40 countries around the globe--don't employ any staff. They aren't supported by taxpayer dollars, don't close 15 minutes after you walk in, and aren't filled with pungent-smelling vagrants who hog all the good seats near the periodicals.

Take a book, leave a book isn't just for hip front yards. Libraries can get on-board too. - JOSEPH S. PETE
  • Joseph S. Pete
  • Take a book, leave a book isn't just for hip front yards. Libraries can get on-board too.

The bird feeder-like book repositories are about sharing literature and stories in the community. They have gone viral in a way that only viruses in the movies can. In only a few short years, the free book exchanges have already sextupled the number of Carnegie libraries that dotted the landscape. Andrew Carnegie, an industrial titan and even larger philanthropist, built about 2,500 libraries, while 15,000 less capital-intensive Little Free Libraries have sprung up around the world.

Little Free Libraries have popped up in places with no libraries in town, such as Bargersville. They're especially popular in Carmel, Greenwood and Plainfield, where traditional libraries have set them up.

The free libraries are located in front lawns, along trails, in parks, outside an art gallery, in front of a welcome center for Hispanic immigrants, by a VFW hall, and even in a company locker. They are ensconced in gardens and outside dentist's offices. Fourth-graders and college students have built the wooden book boxes as service projects.

"One of the first young people we met when we moved to our Riverside neighborhood was a high school-aged boy," said Cindy Tow, a steward of one of the 27th Street Little Free Library stands at the front of the 27th Street Community Garden. "We got to know him very well and eventually learned that he could not read. We were deeply concerned and upset that we, as a society, had failed this young man. From that point on we casually collected books and handed them out to any kids in the neighborhood that wanted them."

The Little Free Library in Riverside's 27th Street Community Garden is stocked with a few classics including Wuthering Heights and a lot of children's books. - COURTESY 27TH STREET COMMUNITY GARDEN
  • Courtesy 27th Street Community Garden
  • The Little Free Library in Riverside's 27th Street Community Garden is stocked with a few classics including Wuthering Heights and a lot of children's books.

Later, the boy was shot and killed. He was then 21.

"When I learned about the Little Free Library movement, I knew we had to have one in our neighborhood and that it would be a great tribute to our friend," Tow said. "I had two students from IUPUI build the library as their service project and began soliciting donations of books from family and friends."

Maintaining the library has been easy. The worst thing that's happened is that someone does not return a book, Tow said.

Conventional libraries have gotten into the game. They have been some of the most active proponents of Little Free Libraries even though they technically might be construed as competition.

"A coworker gave me an article about Little Free Libraries a few years ago, and I was completely drawn to the idea of providing access to books throughout the community," said Joanna Carter, Community Central Manager of the Plainfield-Guilford Township Public Library system.

Carter got in touch with the nonprofit organization and got suggestions about how to raise money for the project. The Wal-Mart Foundation furnished the cash, and an Eagle Scout provided the labor.

Duke Energy started planting new Little Free Libraries, and the rest of the community started pitching in as they grew more prevalent.

"Several groups have stepped up and are actively participating in building, decorating, installing and maintaining the Little Free Libraries," Carter said. "Plainfield Rotary raised funds to add more little libraries as well. The Short Term Offender Program assisted with the project by decorating four Little Free Libraries."

Nine Little Free Libraries now offer books around the Plainfield area, and eight more will be installed next week.

Michelle Young, a former Fairmont Hotels executive who traded suits for saws while following her grandfather into woodworking three years ago, was inspired to build a Little Free Library in the White River area after learning about it on Facebook.

"People were stopping to get books. It's like they knew what to do," Young said. "Mine has a chalkboard side. It has a message 'Take a book, Leave a book, littlefreelibrary.org' and that was it. We were sharing books. It's so flipping fun when someone writes a thank you on the board. Or just an inspiring message."

Little Free Libraries is looking for more stewards to set up and sustain boxes. Anyone who's interested can visit <littlefreelibrary.org/>.​​

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