Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

You can help: Establishing “water coolers of literacy” in rural Minnesota November 17, 2011

Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault

WHEN A NOTICE arrived in my e-mail in-box on Monday that Kathryn Stockett’s The Help was available for me at the local public library, I was thrilled. I’d been number 45 on the waiting list. I figured maybe I’d get the book in say seven years, long after I had forgotten it. Instead I waited only a few months.

Around 6:30 p.m. Monday, on my way to a church meeting, I stopped at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault to pick up this bestselling novel. Much to my dismay, the library appeared closed. It was. And then I remembered the budget cuts that had trimmed evening hours to only Tuesdays and Thursdays.

As frustrated as I sometimes am about shortened night-time hours, I shouldn’t complain. At least I have a library in my community, unlike my hometown of Vesta in southwestern Minnesota. Like two dozen other small towns in Redwood, Cottonwood, Murray and Pipestone counties, Vesta residents rely on the services of the Plum Creek Bookmobile to deliver library materials. (Click here to learn more about that bookmobile.)

Once a month the bookmobile pulls onto Vesta’s Main Street, just as it does in towns like Currie, Iona, Revere and other towns you’ve probably not heard of unless you live or grew up in that rural area of Minnesota.

Given how often I use the Faribault library, I’d have a tough time with only once-a-month library access via a bookmobile. But I know that residents of these rural communities, like my 79-year-old mom, are grateful for their library on wheels.

Can more be done, though, to get books into the hands of these rural residents more frequently? I don’t expect that will come via public library systems with already financially-strapped budgets.

That’s why I’m particularly excited about the nonprofit Little Free Library project, co-founded two years ago by Todd Bol, a native of Stillwater now living in nearby Hudson, Wisconsin. I spoke at length with Bol earlier this week about this endeavor which places birdhouse-sized mini libraries mostly in front yards and in some public locales.

A Little Free Library seems the ideal way to fill a void in small towns without libraries.

But the problem lies in connecting to these sparsely-populated areas and growing these libraries. Bol wanted to pick my brain on how to best reach these communities and spread the word about opening a Little Free Library.

A recently-opened Little Free Library in a southwest Faribault neighborhood.

Several weeks ago a little library opened in Faribault. I learned about Dale and Joan Smith’s front yard library in the local daily newspaper on the same day I read about one opening in Detroit Lakes. Minnesota now has about a dozen Little Free Libraries with orders for some five more, Bol says. Two of those are going to Lakefield near Worthington in the southwestern corner of the state.

That’s the area I want to target for these libraries which operate on the premise of “Take a book, leave a book.” No library cards. No fee. No anything except a steward of the library and the sharing of donated books.

In a blog post published last week about the Smiths’ library, I challenged Vesta area residents to open a Little Free Library. Thus far, no one has responded.

Bol’s nonprofit is there to help, offering everything from advice to publicity to ready-built mini libraries. Those physical libraries range from a basic no-frills model priced at $375 to original art deluxe models listed at $1,000.

Or, like the Smiths in Faribault, you can build your own and then become a Little Free Library member, for a recommended $50 donation. That entitles you to benefits like a sign, sharing of your story online, listing on the LFL world-wide map and more. (Click here for membership details.)

With monies donated through the LFL’s “Pay It Forward” program, funding is available for underwriting library costs, for signs, donations of the library structure, etc.—all aimed toward helping others open village libraries. Currently the nonprofit is assisting soldiers with placing libraries in Afghanistan. No application process exists to apply for funds, but Bol hopes to eventually establish one.

Some 200 officially-registered Little Free Libraries have opened world-wide, according to Bol, who is especially excited about one planned for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. He’s also thrilled about an upcoming story in an Italian fashion magazine.

Defining himself as a “social entrepreneur by profession,” Bol focuses on change and making a difference. He views a Little Free Library as “a water cooler of literacy.” That comes from a man who says he “leans toward dyslexic” and reads primarily social engineering, quirky nonfiction and history books.

The Smiths of Faribault have filled their Little Library with a variety of books.

A LFL, Bol continues, becomes not only a place to get and give books, but also a community gathering spot, a “unique space of conversation” to discuss reading, books, education and more.

“There’s a sense of community being built through Little Free Libraries,” its co-founder says. He sees social interaction between neighbors who previously may not have met or spoken. A front yard library brings them together.

Bol remembers the moment he realized he was onto something with the Little Free Library concept. He had built and placed a schoolhouse-shaped library in his Hudson front yard honoring his mom, June A. Bol. When folks stopped by to shop at a garage sale he was holding and saw the mini library, they were intrigued. “That’s cute. Can I build it?” customers inquired.

From that spark of community interest, this social entrepreneur and his friend Rick Brooks of Madison, Wisconsin, ran with the idea and co-founded the Little Free Library movement.

Today Bol’s looking to engage others, like me, in spreading the word about these mini libraries. I didn’t come up with a brainstorm of an idea when we talked about how to best reach places like the small towns of southwestern Minnesota without libraries. I only suggested establishing a LFL in the area and then contacting small-town daily and weekly newspapers and radio stations in a publicity blitz.

He suggested a contest that would give away a Little Free Library, something he’s previously done.

Bottom line, it’s going to take networking to grow Little Free Libraries in more remote and rural areas.

Once the interest is established, it’s going to take individuals, families, neighbors and/or organizations to build and tend these libraries—perhaps a 4-H club or a 4-Her, a Boy Scout or Girl Scout, a church youth group, a Friends of the Library organization, a woodworker, a service club like Sertoma or Rotary or…

IF YOU HAVE ideas, any ideas, on how to grow Little Free Libraries in rural Minnesota, please submit a comment and share.

IF YOU HAVE a Little Free Library, plan to open one or need assistance in opening one, submit a comment. Most of all, tell others about this project.

FINALLY, if anyone is specifically interested in opening, building or funding a Little Free Library in my hometown of Vesta, let me know. It’s always been my dream to have a library in Vesta.

CLICK HERE for detailed information about the Little Free Library project.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling