Perhaps you’ve seen a Little Free Library before on a neighborhood walk. Maybe you’ve passed several of the tiny reading receptacles but only recently noticed them while staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic, with more time for strolls.
The Greater Seattle area has hundreds of Little Free Libraries, each a unique reflection of its neighborhood and its residents — and, recently, a resource for Seattleites waiting on libraries to reopen.
“You can tell that each of the kiosks has a specialty,” says Kristin Hagglund. Her Edmonds walking route passes by a church library with plenty of Christian texts, and a house she’s sure is full of engineers based on their reading pile. There’s a feline-focused Meow Meow Book Club library in Seward Park and a library for kids to pick out books on their way to school in northwest Seattle. Others offer a mix of everything, from science fiction to true crime to international travel guides.
If you ask Lakewood resident and (professional) librarian David Wright, his red-painted Little Free Library reminds him of a hummingbird feeder — just with humans and good reads instead of sugar water. His house is perched above one of his two reading stands, which were installed four years ago. “We love to look out from our balcony and see people going over the books, and wave and say ‘hi,’” he says.
On March 12, Seattle temporarily closed all of its public libraries in order to curb the coronavirus pandemic. Bookstores also closed storefronts and moved to delivery models, leaving fewer ways to acquire books, especially at a low cost. (Curbside pickup is booting up again.) Wright, a Seattle Times contributor who, under normal circumstances, works at the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library, says he can see that the Little Free Libraries have become more essential. “Suddenly they’re not these odd little alternatives but sometimes the only alternatives.”
That’s certainly true for West Seattle resident Amanda Castleman. “Our Little Free Library had been ticking along, but the lockdown sent it into overdrive,” she says. She installed her library earlier this year after purchasing a house with her partner. “People have been adopting and donating books at an astonishing rate, as well as exchanging other items like art, pet toys and shelf-stable food.” She suspects more people are walking around hunting for a good book to read, especially when the weather is good.
Becky Galloway was a regular user of the public library system before the pandemic. She also has at least five Little Free Libraries in her Shoreline neighborhood that she donates books and magazines to. “I love the neighborliness that it invokes and promotes,” she says. “There’s people behind all of those books, behind all of those donations.” The libraries also give purpose to her walks — she often routes her outings past stands she hasn’t perused in a while.
Annie Nguyen, whose Ballard book-sharing box is decorated with Toothless, the dragon from “How to Train Your Dragon,” thought about converting hers to a free food pantry. (To avoid confusion: Little Free Library inspired the Little Free Pantry, but the nonprofits are not connected.) She waited for it to empty, but it never did — people were avidly exchanging reading material.
“Especially with the libraries being closed … I feel like the Little [Free] Libraries are filling that void,” Nguyen says. It’s even encouraged her daughter to share some of her favorite books. “Every time we’ve read a book enough times, she’s like, ‘OK mom, I think it’s time for another little kid to have it.’”
Some libraries have the pandemic to thank for existing at all — one silver lining amid a crisis.
Chelsea Dziedzic put up her Mount Baker library at the insistence of her sons (ages 7 and 2) when elementary schools closed. Their library is part pantry — her family refills it with tuna, pasta, toilet paper and other goods five or six times a week — and part children’s book exchange. “The kids are really the ones who are taking the lead,” she says. “It’s just a great opportunity for our family to give back in a small way.”
Since there are so many bookstalls and they’re all outside, the hutches don’t end up crowded by people. Still, the Little Free Library organization — which boasts 100,000 boxes worldwide — recommends that folks clean high-touch surfaces like the knobs and doors of libraries. The organization quotes Dr. David Berendes, an epidemiologist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who told the Institute of Museum and Library Services that “we are not concerned at all about paper-based materials like books being a transmission route.”
Organizing the libraries has often been a joint effort between owners and patrons, and now they’re doing what they can to keep the libraries clean and safe. Erin Raney, a fourth grade teacher who works in Queen Anne but lives in Shoreline, wipes her Little Free Library down twice a day, as well as some of the books inside. Nanda Guajardo, who lives near Alki Beach in West Seattle, nestled a hand sanitizer bottle inside her library. Some have put up signs and a few have temporarily closed their boxes. A few people noted that more visitors seem to be making an effort not to touch books unless they plan to take them.
LittleFreeLibrary has a map of all registered libraries so you can find the one nearest to you. If all this neighborly book love has you wanting your own library, well — this story isn’t going to talk you out of it.
“I would encourage anyone who’s considering doing it to do it,” Wright says. “It’s a really fun activity and also a great way to meet strangers who are also readers in the flesh.”
For now, you’d be meeting at 6 feet or more apart. But take heart. Shakespeare’s work outlasted the plague. Books, and the connections they foster, will outlast this pandemic, too.