Rose Cabral’s library looks like a robot. It has dining room table legs, a bookshelf body and PVC pipe arms. Its head, which has changed several times since 2012, is a potted plant with two CD eyes.
The robot is one of Cabral’s two Little Free Libraries – birdhouse-like structures filled with books that anyone can take from or contribute to.
When Cabral started her libraries in 2012, only one other existed on the Sacramento map. Today there are 65, and dozens more unregistered book exchanges. Some are elaborately constructed feats of craftsmanship, and some are just old newspaper containers. Some are in wealthy areas filled with retirees, and some are in younger, poorer neighborhoods.
Little Free Libraries started in 2009, when Todd H. Bol of Hudson, Wis., built a model of a one-room schoolhouse, stuck it to a post in his front yard, and filled it with books. The structure, built in honor of his mother – a teacher and book-lover – was the first Little Free Library in the country. The following year, Bol made 30 more libraries and gave them out to his family and friends. Soon, these Little Libraries spread to towns outside of Hudson. By the end of 2012, the year Little Free Library became a registered nonprofit organization, there were 4,000 registered libraries across the country.
Eight years after the first library was built, the organization’s mission – to inspire a love of reading and build community through book exchanges – still resonates. Today, there are 50,000 total libraries in all 50 states and more than 70 countries.
It seems that wherever they are and whoever is running them, they’re popular.
Cabral’s little libraries, the only two in Colonial Heights, are right beside Colonial Park – a prime location for families passing with their kids or adults just looking for a book to read. While the libraries are on Cabral’s property, she is not the only contributor.
“It’s a community project,” she said. “If something’s wrong with one, the neighbors will fix it or they’ll say, ‘Hey, this needs to be fixed,’ and get a group of people together to fix it. They encourage a lot of people to stop and talk to each other. Before, there was nothing here.”
When Cabral’s more traditional looking free library started leaking, a crafty neighbor built a water-resistant roof. Later, a group of neighbors painted it to protect it from water damage. Despite the occasional vandalism and theft that occurs in the area, no one has done anything to damage the libraries.
A few miles away in River Park, Little Free Libraries have given lifelong book lovers a chance to continue working with books into retirement.
From 1964 until last year, Joan Frye Williams, 65, a self-described “reading evangelist” was employed both as a librarian and library consultant. She helped design libraries across the world – Scandinavia, China, South America – and pushed them to improve their technology.
Her retirement has not dulled her love of books. Her house is practically a library – each room lined with shelves and boxes of volumes. In all, she estimates that she has around 2,000 to 3,000 throughout her house.
Williams takes full-time care of her husband and reads to him every day. Books have always been a factor in their relationship. When they met in 1975, they realized they had the same arcane tastes – both collectors of books by American writer and artist Edward Gorey. For Williams, her Little Free Library keeps her engaged with a community of book lovers.
“My husband’s son said it’s like a bird-feeder for humans,” she said. “It’s a focal point for people to stop and chat and hang out with each other. I’ve gotten to know neighbors from across the park that I didn’t run into normally. It’s more of a social thing than I imagined.”
Williams checks her library every day. When she’s on vacation, she leaves a small back stock in case the books run out. Morning joggers will sometimes take a few books out in the morning. By evening, the library may have a completely different catalog. The library is mostly self-sustaining, with people taking out as many books as they leave.
A notable exception: children’s books. Those don’t last long. But for Williams, that’s a good thing.
“The point is not to have a little box full of books at my house,” she said. “The point is to have them in people’s hands being read and enjoyed. I would be sad if the stuff stayed out there.”
A few months ago, Pat Hull, just down the road, got her own library. It was a longtime wish for Hull, 69. Her husband built the Little Free Library as a Christmas present and retirement project. Hull spent most of her life working in a variety of bookstores, including Sacramento’s defunct Tower Books.
For Hull, part of the fun is curating the selection. If nobody takes a certain book for a few days, she’ll take it off and give another one a chance. She turns to her daughter for advice on children’s books. Her grandkids like the classics – Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Richard Scarry. If you take your kids to Hull’s library, chances are, you’ll find something good.
Of course, you don’t need a lifetime of book-related experience to open up your own Little Free Library.
When Christina Fischer, 39, moved to Oak Park, she noticed that most kids didn’t seem to have a lot of access to books. There’s no public library in Oak Park. The closest one is in Colonial Heights, about a 40-minute walk away.
Fischer, along with her husband and children, decided to have create their own Little Free Library. It’s nothing special – just a painted newspaper box with two stumps in front – but it’s used often.
“It’s fun to see moms go by in their strollers and their kids are like, ‘Can we please get a book?’ and they’ll stop and let their kid get out,” she said. “That’s really nice because that child might not have had a book to read otherwise.”
It seems unlikely that Little Free Libraries, a decidedly technology-free operation, would thrive in a generation defined by the Internet. But the more Little Free Libraries you see, the more you realize it’s about more than just free books.
“It seems small caliber, but humans are endlessly fascinating and that’s what this is about,” said Williams. “The books are just a medium for that connection. I didn’t realize how engaging it would be.”