Little Free Libraries Raise Questions About Privilege and Philanthropic Intention

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CC BY 2.0. Bonnie Alter

A study from Toronto says Little Free Libraries are an example of 'neoliberal politics at street level', rather than a charming component of the sharing movement.

Not many things get a free pass these days, but it seems that whenever a Little Free Library pops up on a lawn, people can’t help singing its praises. You’ve probably seen one – a cute-looking wooden house on a post, filled with a random assortment of books left there by the owners of the property on which it’s situated or by generous passersby, free for the taking.

Two researchers from Toronto, however, are not so enthusiastic about these mini libraries. Jane Schmidt, a librarian at Ryerson University, and Jordan Hale, a geographer and reference specialist from the University of Toronto, have published a study called “Little Free Libraries: Interrogating the impact of the branded book exchange” that questions the “unfailingly obsequious” reception the public has to Little Free Libraries (LFLs).

Theirs is an interestingly contrarian approach to something that is usually embraced unquestioningly; after all, who doesn’t love books and the idea of spreading them far and wide? Schmidt and Hale make it clear that their study is not an attack on LFLs, but rather an attempt to understand better their appeal and what sort of real effect they have in North American cities today.

It turns out, they’re not as simple as they seem.

Little Free Library is a brand name, which means that anyone who wishes to use it must pay a registration fee that ranges from US $42 - $89. As of November 2016, there were 50,000 official LFLs. Founder Todd Bol has said that nobody is allowed to use the name without permission.

Customers can buy an optional structure to use, which costs anywhere from US $179 to $1,254, ordering from a website that sells branded totes, bumper stickers, signs, bookmarks, ink stamp, a dog treat container, sets of “rainbow library decorating pens,” mugs, guest books, and other random goods.

Little Free Library in Toronto

© Lloyd Alter -- Little Free Library isn't so free after all

The company has 14 employees, evidence of what Schmidt and Hale call the corporatization of a grassroots phenomenon. In other words, LFLs have made book-sharing more complicated and costly than it ever needed to be: “Put simply, one does not need the assistance of a non-profit corporation to share books with their neighbors.”

While mapping the locations of LFLs in Toronto and Calgary, the researchers found that they appear mostly in wealthy, gentrified neighborhoods where predominantly white residents are likely to possess university degrees and, most interestingly, where public libraries already exist. This challenges the notion that LFLs can somehow combat “book deserts,” as its website asserts. In reality, it’s feeding books to a neighborhood already fairly well steeped in good literature.

Schmidt and Hale found the notion of ‘community building’ lacking as well. Despite this being a popular reason for installing a LFL on one’s property, they found that homeowners “studiously avoided” interactions with strangers looking at books. The study authors view the installation of an LFL as ‘virtue-signaling,’ a form of branded philanthropy that’s indicative of “limited commitment to social justice beyond the immediately local”:

“We submit that these data reinforce the notion that [Little Free Libraries] are examples of performative community enhancement, driven more so by the desire to showcase one’s passion for books and education than a genuine desire to help the community in a meaningful way.”

The study raises the big question: Why can’t public libraries meet these needs? Public libraries, after all, are the ultimate free library, without registration fees. They do precisely what the LFL claims to do, except on a much greater scale, and are about so much more than books. They host community-building events and safe spaces to read. Book collections are curated by trained librarians, not left to the whims of do-gooder neighbors or people wanting to get rid of ancient textbooks. Libraries are more likely to have readable collections, which are better suited to the kinds of new readers LFLs are supposed to attract:

“Reluctant readers are unlikely to find material that will appeal to them in the serendipitous scenario; it is often the passionate readers who find the Little Free Library concept so appealing. This in and of itself is a contradiction of the LFL mission to enhance literacy in communities.”
inside a Little Free Library

© Lloyd Alter -- A glimpse inside a Little Free Library near Lloyd's house in Toronto

Schmidt does not believe that LFLs harm public libraries (though she and Hale cite one example of this in Vinton, Texas, where the mayor installed 5 LFLs and imposed a $50 user fee for the public library), nor is she convinced that LFLs accomplish what they’re supposed to. She told CityLab:

“I don't think we can definitively say that they [don’t] reduce inequality. I just don’t think they can say they reduce inequality, either.”

Read the full study here.