Kodiak, Alaska, has one. So does Tirana, the capital of Albania. And in Seattle, they’re getting as thick on the ground as Starbucks, with 131 and counting.
“They” are Little Free Libraries (LFLs). And over the weekend they were used to raise $3,000 for the Seattle branch of Architects Without Borders (AWB-Seattle).
The idea: Have people take part in an LFL design/build competition, called “Libraries on the Loose!” All entry fees would benefit AWB-Seattle. Entrants were required to stick to a $150 budget and to submit documentation of their efforts and finished products, including assembly instructions. One aim was to establish an inexpensive prototype that could serve as a template for future LFL builders.
Twenty different teams entered the fray, and the winner — Johnston Architects FLLC Team’s “Spinning Stories” — was chosen by a panel of five judges at the Seattle Design Festival Saturday, Sept. 6.
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The sheer variety of approaches made the task of judging less like choosing between apples and oranges than vacillating between repurposed road signs, newspaper dispensers, milk cartons, wooden crates, bicycle parts and umbrellas.
“Spinning Stories,” located at 100 N.W. 79th St., takes a bicycle-parts-and-umbrella approach. It consists of a steel rod anchored in a buried concrete-filled bucket, with a turning carousel made of two bicycle wheels on it, sheltered by an oversized golf umbrella. Some rubber straps keep the books from slipping through the spokes. The umbrella is all that protects them from the weather (pray for no side winds).
Before the contest, I ventured around town, checking on entrants’ works-in-progress. Most contestants came from architectural firms, but a few were community generated. One neighborhood effort, by the Bryant Group, was by far the most picturesque and elaborate. (Full disclosure: SeattleTimes assistant metro editor Linda Shaw was on the team that created it). But like several other entries, it clearly would take someone with sophisticated carpentry skills and access to quality workshop-tools to build it.
“Spinning Stories,” by contrast, looks buildable by ordinary people, even though it was designed by an established architectural firm — one that has designed a number of local libraries (as have several other entrants in the contest).
Alex Fraser, who spearheaded the design, says Johnston Architects were trying to create “something that caught people’s attention and engaged people, and was interactive and fun.”
The festival’s theme was “Design in Motion.” “So right from the earliest sketches,” Mary Johnston says, “we knew we wanted it to be kinetic.”
It was important to use “easily obtained material that anyone could come up with,” she adds. “You just mix up a little concrete in a bucket, and dig a hole, and put your pipe in it.”
Fraser notes that they wanted their LFL’s components to be “akin to Seattle.”
Hence the bicycle parts and umbrella.
The first Little Free Library was created in Hudson, Wisc., by Todd Bol in 2009, after he’d been laid off from his job. In a recent phone interview, he said he was “pretty much doing things on my open-air deck, trying to kill time.”
What he came up with was a miniature one-room schoolhouse, like the one where his mother taught. He filled it with books from her library to serve as a memorial to her. (Many LFLS, he explains, are built to honor someone’s memory.)
Bol’s latest estimate is that there about 20,000 LFLs worldwide, in 75 countries. Bol has gone into business of selling LFLs online, and he keeps a register of new ones that open.
“People that build their own represent about 65 percent of the libraries,” he says. “The ones that buy from us represent about 35 percent.”
His first goal, once LFLs started taking off, was to see 2,509 built — the number of libraries Andew Carnegie created. His new goal is to beat the number of McDonald’s restaurants in the world, so people can put signs on their LFLs reading “Billions and billions read. More books than burgers.”
Audrey Barbakoff, a librarian with Kitsap Regional Library and one of the judges, enthused, “Books and literature are one of the most amazing ways to build community, for us to talk about the things that matter to us, for us to share ideas. And making that accessible to everybody all the time, just building it into the fabric of our everyday lives, is an amazing gift.”
Seattle City Librarian Marcellus Turner, another judge, adds, “I had no idea so many of our neighborhood citizens were doing this. So it just brings a lot of joy to me.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org