Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Little Free Libraries for Small Towns project in Minnesota and Wisconsin officially kicks off at MOA August 15, 2012

TEN MONTHS AGO, Todd Bol, co-founder of the Wisconsin-based Little Free Library, and I were discussing an idea to get Little Free Libraries into small towns without libraries. I wanted a library in my hometown of Vesta, a community of around 340 residents which has never had a library.

I had blogged about a LFL in Faribault, where I have lived for 30 years, and challenged the residents of Vesta to start a LFL.

The LFL Todd and Susan Bol installed outside the community-owned Vesta Cafe.

After making that challenge, Bol and I talked and, several months later, he offered to donate, deliver and install a LFL in Vesta, placing the first library in a new initiative, Little Free Libraries for Small Towns. Bol and his wife, Susan, drove from Hudson, Wisconsin, on July 1 and installed a LFL in front of the Vesta Cafe.

This Friday, August 17, that small towns project officially kicks off with a celebration from noon to 3 p.m. in the Mall of America rotunda near the east entrance. A program featuring activities and also appearances by local celebrities sharing their favorite books is slated for 1 – 2 p.m. Businesses and publishers are donating new books and the public is encouraged to bring books for 20 uniquely designed mini libraries to be placed in Twin Cities’ neighborhoods and communities surrounding the mega mall.

MOA is donating those 20 libraries and two special libraries (numbers 2,509 and 2,510) which will tie and break the records of libraries funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

How sweet is that? But even sweeter, in my opinion, is the MOA’s general support of the Little Free Libraries for Small Towns project as a way “to promote literacy and community-building by supporting neighborhood book exchanges.”

The beautiful handcrafted LFL donated to my hometown of Vesta.

The LFL works on the premise of take a book/leave a book in a little library, which is typically an over-sized birdhouse size structure attached to a post and installed outdoors, making books accessible to the public 24/7.

In kicking off its Little Free Libraries for Small Towns project, the LFL non-profit aims to focus first on the small towns of Minnesota and Wisconsin without ready access to public libraries, like my hometown of Vesta on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. The closest libraries to Vesta are about 20 miles away. Earlier this year bookmobile service to my hometown and several other communities was cut by Redwood County commissioners to save money.

I expect that many other small towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin are in similar positions, without library services because a) they’ve never had libraries or b) funding has been cut or trimmed.

Living in or near a town without a library, as I did growing up, is a hardship for someone like me who loves to read. That’s why I was adamant in my discussion last fall with LFL co-founder Bol that he focus on small towns without libraries. He liked the idea—Bol is very much an energetic ideas man—and he eventually shaped our discussion, with the help of his equally enthusiastic staff, into the Little Free Libraries for Small Towns project.

Bol thinks big. The LFL group is initially seeking 20 sponsors to each facilitate 20 Little Free Libraries for small towns across Minnesota and Wisconsin, resulting in 400 new free libraries. A $600 contribution supports construction, delivery and installation of one LFL to a small town and a starter collection of books as well as official LFL registration and promotion, and a plaque on the sponsored library.

Beyond all of that, the real satisfaction, I think, comes in the reaction of those communities which benefit from such generosity. My hometown has embraced the LFL with a level of enthusiasm beyond anything I ever expected.

The team that worked to bring a Little Free Library to Vesta includes Dorothy Marquardt, left, and Karen Lemcke, representing the sponsoring Vesta Commercial Club, LFL co-founder Todd Bol and me (holding a copy of a poetry anthology I donated and in which I have two poems, “A school without a library” and “Saturday night baths”).

Karen Lemcke, who early on supported the LFL as a member of the Vesta Commercial Club and is now the Vesta library steward, shared several weeks ago that Vesta’s LFL is a “very successful project.”

She then went on to explain that area residents are taking books from the outdoor LFL and that two bookshelves inside the Vesta Cafe have also been filled with donated books. Says Lemcke:

We have a variety of books from non-fiction, fiction and children’s books. On Sunday, children had taken some of the books and sat on a couch nearby looking through them. I heard today that tractor books were on a shelf and local farmers were borrowing them overnight to look through. The women have been going through the books as well and they will be picking up some to read, too…It’s like it (LFL) brought a “little life” to Vesta.

If you are thinking that Karen’s report brought tears to my eyes, you would be right. To hear that farmers are pulling tractor books from shelves to take home, especially, pleases me. And kids paging through books…

The books Todd Bol and I placed inside Vesta’s LFL on July 1. He brought books donated by several Twin Cities publishers and I brought books from my personal collection. I have since collected and donated an additional 40 books.  A retired librarian from nearby Wabasso donated eight bags of books, primarily mysteries, and the cafe manager’s family also donated books and I expect others have given books, too.

With this new LFL for Small Towns project, just consider for a moment how many more scenarios like this can happen in small towns without libraries. What a gift to bring books to the residents of small towns and enhance or instill a love of reading.

The LFL organization is now accepting applications from communities which would like to be considered for the Little Free Libraries for Small Towns project. Applicants from Minnesota and Wisconsin need only complete a short questionnaire requesting information such as the town’s population, whether it has a public library and how a LFL would make a difference in their community.

LFLs will be awarded based on available sponsorships and contributions and the need and interest level of the applicant communities, among other criteria.

So…if your small Minnesota or Wisconsin town needs a library, believe. It can happen. My conversation with the co-founder of the Little Free Library resulted in the donation of a library and a starter collection of books to my hometown…and the launch of the Little Free Libraries for Small Towns project.

The Little Free Library at the Vesta Cafe on the one-block Main Street in my hometown is the seed plant of the Little Free Libraries for Small Towns project.

FYI: For more information about the LFL program, click here to reach the website. To learn more about  the Little Free Libraries for Small Towns initiative and to download an application, click here.  Applications will also be available at the MOA-LFL event on Friday, to which I’ve been invited but will be unable to attend.

If you or your business or organization is interested in sponsoring a library or libraries for the small towns initiative in Minnesota or Wisconsin, email Megan Hanson at mphanson@littlefreelibrary.org.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling