In case you missed it, Forbes recently published a hot take from one of their contributors on the state of books today: “Amazon should replace local libraries to save taxpayers money,” he argued, because its physical bookstore chain “basically combines a library with a Starbucks.”
The argument to replace a public good with a corporate retail store touched a nerve with even the most tranquil of Tweeters, who went on to list all the reasons the library is very much a public necessity: It’s one of the few remaining places that offer free internet access in rural areas, host student activities, conduct workshops for senior citizens, store rare periodicals and recordings, and provide a safe space for disadvantaged communities. In a delightful stroke of irony, the now-deleted article has been digitally archived for public access by the American Library Association.
Yet even as traditional libraries continue to offer services beyond book-borrowing and become important places for gathering and civic engagement, they face a higher risk of budget cuts, staff layoffs and closures. Libraries need to tackle these challenges creatively, starting with their infrastructure and distribution models.
Enter “micro libraries.” These free, small, independent book depots may go by many names and come in countless forms. A micro library could be housed in a stand-alone shelf, a glass box, an old fridge, a converted bathtub, or even a Doctor Who-themed TARDIS. Be it the “Corner Library” in Bushwick, Brooklyn, or “The Book Booth” in Clinton Corners, New York, they all follow one modus operandi: take a book, leave a book. Anyone can pass by, scan the titles, skim through, pick up a book, and leave one in its place.
Little Free Libraries created a formal organization around this model, and now boasts of 70,000 registered libraries in all 50 states and 85 countries. Their unique book-sharing system relies on volunteers, or book “stewards,” in local communities to set up and maintain the boxes. The Book Stop project in Philippines strives to put libraries in open, accessible places by creating structures that are both bookshelves and platforms for reading. Another fascinating project called DUB 002 – short for Department of Urban Betterment – combines book-sharing with adaptive reuse. Designer John Locke fits bookshelves onto the phone booths peppered throughout the city, with the aim of converting old pay phone kiosks into street libraries. “I’m interested in pay phones because they are both anachronistic and quotidian. Relics, they’re dead technology perched on the edge of obsolescence, a skeuomorph hearkening back to a lost shared public space we might no longer have any use for,” he says.
The notion of extending the reach of libraries via ancillary networks isn’t new. During the Great Depression, the Pack Horse Librarians would ride up the Appalachian Mountains with saddlebags full of books for people living in remote areas. The program ended in 1943, only to be followed three years later by the introduction of motorized bookmobiles – the icecream truck of books. The same principle rings through the Subway Library campaign by New York Public Library which transformed MTA trains into reading rooms and gave commuters access to NYPL’s collection of e-books. The Contra Costa County Library’s Library-a-Go-Go is a book-lending vending machine that emphasizes self-service and works like an ATM for library cardholders.
What’s the secret to the success of micro libraries? No library card, late fees, or closing hours, for one. Not to mention they’re open to all – homeless people don’t need to register or provide proof of residence. They’re also self-sustaining and based entirely on the honor system, which assumes that all borrowers will be lenders out of mutual trust and their love of books.
The stewards of these micro libraries often run Facebook pages to promote them, helping this analog experience gain traction online. It helps that they’re Instagram gold. Every micro library is unique because its contents reveal the character of the neighborhood and its residents. A cookbook full of recipes from Italian grandmothers resting against a copy of The Quran; a worn and weathered Lord of the Flies stacked neatly next to Investing for Dummies. It’s no Dewey Decimal System, but it has its own charm.
New York’s bike share system Citibike could just as well be a book share system, with docking stations installed in strategic, high-foot-traffic locations such as subway stops and pocket parks. NYPL could take a tip from Library-a-Go-Go and set up book-vending machines that, say, could all hold Blind Date With A Book-style mystery covers and titles to facilitate a sense of discovery.
Micro libraries have proven that traditional libraries have staying power. They’ve helped us reconsider the value of a library’s role and vitality in our public spaces – to be ultimately held in the same regard as our cafes and laundromats, banks and bodegas. If we think of micro libraries as a spontaneous manifestation of the value people place on the sharing of knowledge, we can see them as part of the support network that made possible the robust, outspoken response to Forbes’ disastrous op-ed. In this way, public libraries have been remarkably resilient, flourishing in a time of underfunding and decline.
What are some other struggling systems that could benefit from fostering this kind of support? There’s no reason the take-one/leave-one model should be limited to books. Communities could erect depots that collect and provide unrestricted access to resources like food, hygiene products, clothes, batteries and utensils.
This post was written by Shivani Gorle with thinking contributed by Brendan Crain.