Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Take a (story) walk along Central in Faribault September 2, 2020


A page from Eric Carle’s book, From Head to Toe, photographed inside a StoryWalk display case.


“I can do it!” What an empowering statement, especially for young children. Those four words refrain in an installment of pages from the children’s picture book, From Head to Toe, now posted on street corners in the heart of historic downtown Faribault.


Posted next to Burkhartzmeyer Shoes and looking down a side street off Central.


I love this latest addition to my community as part of a StoryWalk® CENTRAL project coordinated locally by Buckham Memorial Library. The idea is rooted in Vermont and seems to be a trend right now in the library world. River Bend Nature Center in Faribault and the public library in neighboring Northfield are hosting similar story walks.


Looking north on Central Avenue, you can see one of the StoryWalk pages posted next to an historic-themed bench.


Last week one evening, Randy and I walked Central Avenue with our four-year-old granddaughter, viewing the colorful story crafted by noted author and illustrator Eric Carle. He is perhaps best-known for his children’s picture book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I’ve long been a fan of Carle’s creativity. He understands how to connect with the littlest of people through colorful illustrations and simple, repetitive and engaging language.


Historic Central Avenue provides the backdrop for StoryWalk CENTRAL.


Bold colors and strong shapes define Carle’s art.


The book engages.


It took Isabelle a bit to get into From Head to Toe. But when she observed Grandma and Grandpa wriggling their hips like crocodiles, bending their necks like giraffes and stomping their feet like elephants, she joined in. Carle’s book calls for the reader and listener to actively participate in the book by doing the actions associated with each animal. It’s a great way to get kids up and moving. Adults, too.


The thoughts behind StoryWalk.


And that, according to information posted on one of the 12 signs, is part of the motivation behind the interactive StoryWalk® concept. The book “combines early literacy learning, family engagement and physical activity.” And promotes brain growth and physical health through exercise.


The animals lead the action.


The book also highlights diversity in the different ethnicities of the children and in the different animals Carle has created in his story. I especially appreciate that in our diverse community of Faribault. Buckham Memorial Library Director Delane James echoes my thoughts, praising From Head to Toe as a book that “resonates with everybody in the community…anyone can enjoy it no matter who they are.” And that means even those who can’t read or whose native language is one other than English. Like me, she calls Carle’s book “empowering.”

There are plans for more, and longer, book installations, all funded by a federal grant and coordinated with multiple city departments, James says. She noted the joint efforts of library, economic development, engineering and public works staff in getting the first StoryWalk® CENTRAL in place. From Head to Toe will remain posted for several months. This will be an ongoing and evolving public art and literacy project with five years worth of books included in the funding. The library buys multiple copies of the featured books, then removes and laminates the pages for posting in the weather-proof display cases.


The 12th, and final, story board is located outside the entry to Buckham Memorial Library. This is looking north toward Central Avenue. The final board is designed to get kids and others inside the library, although the library is currently open by appointment only.


I appreciate, in this time of a global pandemic, a safe activity I can do with my granddaughter when she’s visiting. Only after we arrived home did Izzy share, “That’s Isaac’s favorite book.” That means we’ll be back on Central with her 20-month-old brother, wriggling our hips, bending our necks, stomping our feet and repeating, “I can do it!”


© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Remembering with gratitude Todd Bol, founder of the Little Free Library October 18, 2018

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The Redwood Falls Gazette editor Troy Krause, right, interviews Todd Bol, co-founder of the Little Free Library in Vesta in early July 2012.  Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.


TODD BOL DIED ON THURSDAY from pancreatic cancer.


The beautiful handcrafted LFL donated to my hometown of Vesta. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.


I met him briefly in July 2012 when he drove three hours from Hudson, Wisconsin, to my hometown on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. He delivered a Little Free Library, fulfilling my life-long dream for a library in Vesta.


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). Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012 by Randy Helbling.


I shall be forever grateful to this visionary’s gift of a mini library and books. My mom used that LFL. So did extended family and others in and around the small farming community. Folks operating the Vesta Cafe expanded the library, placing shelves inside the restaurant for more books. Locals tended the outdoor library Bol installed near the cafe entrance.


The LFL Todd and Susan Bol installed outside the community owned Vesta Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.


Now, all these years later, the founder of the Little Free Library leaves a world-wide legacy of literacy with 75,000-plus officially registered libraries in 88 countries.


The books Todd Bol and I placed inside Vesta’s LFL on July 1, 2012. 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 managers also donated books. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.


And one of those is in my hometown because one man cared enough about a small town in the middle of nowhere to deliver the seed plant for the Small Towns Minnesota LFL Movement. Because of Todd’s generosity, his kindness, his love of books, my hometown has a library. As a lover of books, of the written word, I am grateful.


One of many Little Free Libraries in Faribault, where I’ve lived since 1982. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


TELL ME: Are there Little Free Libraries in your community? I’d like to hear your LFL stories in honor of Todd Bol.

FYI: Click here to read the original post I wrote about Todd’s visit to my hometown to install the LFL.

PLEASE CHECK BACK to see a memorable LFL I spotted recently in Waseca.


© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Passing a love of books onto the next generation November 30, 2017

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My granddaughter with a book.


I HAVE ALWAYS loved books. Always. They have taught, inspired, uplifted, entertained and challenged me and so much more.


I didn’t have many books as a young child because my parents couldn’t afford them. But I had this one, which I recently spotted (and should have bought) at a Pequot Lakes antique shop


A favorite childhood storybook, Three Billy Goats Gruff, instilled in me a fondness for goats and for fairy tales. And a beginning reader book, Joey the Kangaroo, endeared me to kangaroos. As my reading skills advanced, I treasured my hardcover copies of Little House on the Prairie, The Bobbsey Twins, Little Women and The Five Little Peppers.

Somewhere in that time-frame I discovered Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Those series led to a life-long love of mysteries, my favorite genre.

I thrilled in bringing home book orders from school and ordering a paperback or two to add to my bedroom bookshelf. Even though money was tight in our family, Mom allowed me to select books like Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle and Other Modern Verse.


When Izzy visits, she often heads straight for this basket crammed with 14 books (current count) and a few toys. While I washed dishes one morning, she pulled the books from the basket one-by-one and “read” each one.


When I became a mom in 1986 and birthed more children 21 months and six years later, my time to indulge in leisurely reading vanished. Instead, I found myself with a baby or child on my lap or snuggled next to me on the couch with hardboard and picture books in hand. When my eldest turned six, I was already reading The Little House and Betsy-Tacy series to her and her four-year-old sister.


When Izzy opened an I Spy book, I showed her how a matchbox bus matched the photo. I said the word “bus,” then repeated myself. At 20 months, she’s learning new words at a rapid pace.


I hold dear those memories of reading to Amber, Miranda and Caleb. All three of my kids love to read. Miranda fixated on horses for awhile, our local librarian Mary Jane always on the watch for new equine books.


I love this photo of Izzy “reading.” She didn’t even notice me with my camera, so engrossed was she in her book.


Reminders of those youthful passions for reading linger in bookshelves packed with science fiction and fantasy books in Caleb’s former bedroom. My son also frequented the nonfiction section of the local library seeking out books to teach himself juggling, magic tricks, computer programming and more. He loves to learn and never wanted to wait for a teacher to teach him. Today, with a computer science degree, he works in that field and continues to pursue learning. He holds an innate desire and passion for knowledge.

Both of my girls worked in the local library while in high school and later at their respective college libraries. They have never been far from books—whether listening to stories read at home or at library story hour, participating in summer reading programs, filing books on library shelves or simply just reading on their own.


One of Izzy’s favorite books to read at my house is All Year Round With Little Frog. When she pushes on the plastic frog, it squeaks. I read this book to Izzy’s Uncle Caleb more than 20 years ago.


My kids are grown and gone now. But the importance of reading remains, circling back now to the next generation. My granddaughter, Isabelle, loves to page through books and to be read to by her parents and others who love her, including me. She’s already completed her first summer reading program, attends storytime at the library and has a significant collection of books.


My husband, Randy, reads to his granddaughter during an overnight stay at our house several months ago.


Izzy has received, says my librarian friend Kathleen, “the gift of generational literacy.” I’ve never thought of the continuum of loving books in that way. But I love that phrase. “Miss Izzy loves books because you instilled that love in her mom (and her sister and brother)…and now, another generation benefits…and on and on,” Kathleen observed. Izzy’s daddy, too, enjoys reading, a gift of generational literacy also passed from his family.


Izzy pages through her mama’s childhood book, Moo, Moo, Peekaboo.


To watch Isabelle page through books I once read to her mama, aunt or uncle brings me much joy. The words I read some 30 years ago tumble from my memory as I hold Izzy close and recite from memory Moo, moo! Peekaboo, we see you, cow!


TELL ME: Have you received the gift of generational literacy and/or passed that gift along?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


At the Faribault library: When a knock-knock joke is more than just a knock-knock joke February 7, 2017

What did one plate say to the other?
Lunch is on me.

What do you give a sick pig?

How do you count cows?
With a cowculator.

NOW YOU MIGHT EXPECT a third grader shared those knock-knock jokes with me or perhaps I read them in a joke book?




But you would be wrong. I read them on new furniture placed several days ago in Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault. You read that right. The jokes are printed on easy chairs and loveseats. But this isn’t just any furniture. Minnesota prisoners crafted this furniture.

So what’s the story with the construction and the upholstery design? For the answers, I turned to Library Director Delane James.




In the market for the first new furniture since a library remodeling project in 1996, James looked to the state vendor approved MINNCOR Industries, a Minnesota Department of Corrections prison industry. Inmate labor is utilized for manufacturing products and for services. She likes the idea, James says, of prisoners learning marketable skills that may prevent recidivism.




James also knew that the quality, durable furniture will last. For the past 21 years, MINNCOR furniture endured in her library that today sees 500-700 daily users.

With specific goals, the library director started poking around on the MINNCOR website for fabric options. “I wanted something that was attention-getting and to promote literacy,” she says. “I wanted the unexpected, to get them (library users) to read.”




She found that in the Funnybone Collection, in a print labeled KNOCK KNOCK in a color tagged Class Clown.

Already, James has seen the positive results of her fabric choice. She observed two high school students reading knock-knock jokes to one another during a library Homework Help session.




Among jokes printed on the fabric is this one:

How do prisoners make phone calls?
With cell phones.

That joke is the favorite of prisoners and is the talk of the prison, James learned when $40,000 in lounge chairs, loveseats, computer chairs and 90 stackable chairs were delivered to the library late last week. Only the loveseats and three of the easy chairs are imprinted with jokes.




The KNOCK KNOCK design chosen by James is also putting Buckham Library in the spotlight. A MINNCOR marketing staffer photographed the furniture in the Faribault library on Friday to promote usage in other libraries. Perhaps more Minnesota library directors will take a cue from James and select prison-built Funnybone furniture that grabs attentions, promotes literacy and prompts conversation.

TELL ME: Have you seen this or similar inspiring furniture in a public place? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


An innovative plan to promote literacy at a rural Minnesota library August 19, 2015

This shows plans for the custom-designed Outdoor Early Literacy Area planned for the Redwood Falls Public Library. The playground equipment will be custom made and themed to agriculture and camping. Image courtesy of the Redwood Falls Public Library.

This shows plans for the Outdoor Early Literacy Area planned for the Redwood Falls Public Library. The playground equipment will be custom made and themed to agriculture and camping. Image courtesy of the Redwood Falls Public Library.

IN MY HOME COUNTY OF REDWOOD on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, the Redwood Falls Public Library is planning to construct an Outdoor Early Literacy Area themed to agriculture and camping.

The elevator in Lamberton, Minnesota, just to the south of my brother's place.

A soybean field and the grain elevator in Lamberton, Minnesota, in southern Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2015.

I love this idea of combining literacy and outdoor play. And the themes are perfect for this community. Even though kids in Redwood County live in the heart of Minnesota farm country, that doesn’t mean they are familiar with farming. This is just one more way to keep Minnesota’s farm heritage strong, by teaching youngsters the importance of agriculture in a way that’s hands-on creative.

Ramsey Falls in Alexander Ramsey Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Ramsey Falls in Alexander Ramsey Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Redwood Falls is also a camping oasis of sorts with Alexander Ramsey Park, known as the “Little Yellowstone of Minnesota.” The park is a surprise of woods, hills, river valley and waterfalls in this county of small towns and cropland. The camping aspect will instill an appreciation of the outdoors and recreation in this place of prairie and sky.

Geared for children up to age seven, the outdoor literary area aims to achieve seven goals, Library Director Teri Smith shares in an email:

  • Encourage a love of literacy in a developmentally appropriate environment.
  • Incorporate a love of reading, print awareness, letter knowledge, sound awareness, vocabulary, and narrative skills and comprehension in joyful play.
  • Cultivate literacy in a relevant way (using known objects and activities relevant to southwestern Minnesota).
  • Encourage families and young children to spend more time at the library.
  • Encourage play in learning.
  • Encourage play in nature.
  • Encourage a love of learning at an early age and throughout a lifetime.
Just another view of the planned literacy area. Image courtesy of the Redwood Falls Public Library.

Just another view of the planned literacy area. Image courtesy of the Redwood Falls Public Library.

So how, exactly, will that happen? Young families can check out pretend produce, eggs, fishing equipment and even numbered and lettered fish from the library to use outdoors. And, as they play, the kids will learn about healthy living and agriculture and acquire literacy skills. The children’s librarian will model play and interactions in the outdoor space, Smith says. The library also hopes to tap into Reading Corps volunteers.

A place like this is needed, says Smith, because few areas exist in this rural community for young families to gather and enjoy one another’s company while learning valuable literacy and social skills.

Already, the library has raised some two-thirds of the $100,000 needed for the outdoor literacy area. An astounding nearly $51,000 has come in the form of 12 grants (one is a materials donation of fencing) ranging from $250 – $20,000, all sought by Smith. The largest of the grants came from the Otto Bremer Foundation. Two $10,000 grants also were awarded by the Schmidt Foundation and the Minnesota Legacy fund. Smith is awaiting word on several other grants and donations.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2013.

And, as I would expect in a rural area, local individuals, organizations and businesses have also given their generous financial support to the project.

Smith has also established an online fundraising site at YouCaring. About a month remains to meet that $10,000 fundraising goal.

The popularity of a Minnesota Children’s Museum traveling Storyland exhibit which came to Redwood Falls inspired library staff to consider a permanent outdoor literacy-based play space. If all goes as planned, the custom-designed farming and camping themed play area should be under construction in the spring of 2016.

FYI: If you missed my post yesterday on Sibley Farm inside Mankato’s Sibley Park, click here. It’s another great example of how southern Minnesota is connecting kids to the region’s strong agricultural heritage and base.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


How you can make a difference in one Minnesota kindergarten classroom August 24, 2013

Looking to the front and one side of the school.

Long gone are the days of ink well desks, blackboards and Big Chief tablets.  Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo of Little Prairie School, rural Dundas, Minnesota.

MY ELDEST DAUGHTER’S friend, Laura, teaches at Earle Brown Elementary School in the north metro, in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, Independent School District 286.

I’ve met Laura once. Mostly I “know” Laura because I follow her “These are a Few of my Favorite Things” blog. Click here to reach her blog and you will meet a young woman who is passionate about life, about teaching, about helping others (she’s been on summer mission trips to Africa), about photography, her faith and more.

Laura is the kind of person you would hope would teach your children or grandchildren. She cares. Deeply.

Presidential portraits grace the blackboard by the teacher's desk.

Technology long ago replaced the blackboards of my youth. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

That said, this passionate teacher is looking to buy two iPad minis for her classroom to use in literacy and math centers. Her school district, she says, doesn’t have the monies for such purchases. She needs about $900 and has set up a donation venue at DonorsChoose.org. Click here to reach her Donors page, where you will find more details.

Laura writes in part:

My kindergartners start school already behind academically. Many of them have never set foot in a school environment. Others don’t come to school with clean clothes or proper school supplies. A third of my class doesn’t speak English as their first language.

But the thing is, my kids don’t know they are behind. They don’t realize the challenges they are facing. They are five, and this is life as they know it. They come in my door ready to learn, EXCITED to learn. I want to capitalize on this eagerness and provide them the best environment with the best tools at their fingertips. My goal is to have them leave kindergarten at or above grade level. My goal is for each of my students to know that they matter and they are loved. I want my students to know that they have what it takes to accomplish something in this world.

Can you sense this teacher’s enthusiasm and love for her students? I can. She wants (let’s reread this) her kids “to know that they have what it takes to accomplish something in this world.”

You should also know that the label of “high poverty,” based on the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunches, is attached to Earle Brown Elementary.

Please consider donating. For the sake of those five-year-olds.

Click here to link to Ms. Karsjen’s project and give.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


My dream come true: A Little Free Library installed in my hometown on the southwestern Minnesota prairie July 3, 2012

IMAGINE GROWING UP in a town without a library and, all your life, wishing for a library in your hometown.

Then imagine one July day, when you have been gone for nearly four decades and are old enough to qualify as a senior citizen, that a couple drives into your hometown in their station wagon to deliver a library.

That scenario played out in my hometown on Sunday afternoon as Todd Bol, co-founder of the Little Free Library, traveled three hours from Hudson, Wisconsin, with his wife, Susan, and their two dogs to deliver and install a LFL at the Vesta Cafe in the southwestern Minnesota prairie town of Vesta.

Troy Krause of The Redwood Falls Gazette interviews Little Free Library co-founder Todd Bol as Dorothy Marquardt, left, and Karen Lemcke of the Vesta Commercial Club listen.

“I love books. They are part of my heart and soul,” Todd Bol said Sunday as he stood outside the cafe near the over-sized birdhouse style library anchored on a post. I listened and snapped photos as Troy Krause, editor of The Redwood Falls Gazette interviewed this man who has seen his LFL story spread to media outlets worldwide, from The Huffington Post to The Los Angeles Times and beyond.

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

Little Free Libraries are popping up everywhere across the country (and even outside the U.S.), bringing books to neighborhoods and cities and now, for the first time, to places likes Vesta, the seed plant for the “Small Towns Minnesota” movement of the LFL project, according to Bol.

The beautiful handcrafted library Todd Bol had built and painted for the residents of Vesta, population around 340.

He offered to donate the library, hand-built by an Amish carpenter from Cashton, Wisconsin, to Vesta after I blogged last November about a LFL in my community of Faribault and then issued this challenge to my hometown of some 340 residents:

I’d like to challenge the residents of Vesta to start a Little Free Library. How about in or near the Vesta Cafe? Make my dream of a library in my hometown come true. I’ll even bring some books for the library the next time I’m “back home.”

The books Todd Bol and I placed inside Vesta’s LFL. I plan to bring some books for children and teens the next time I’m back in Vesta. Anyone is welcome to donate books. Overflow books will go on a bookshelf inside the cafe and books will be rotated.

Sunday afternoon I delivered on that promise as did Bol with his promise. He brought the library and we filled it with books—his donated by Coffee House Press and mine from my bookshelves. Among my seven donations were two books of poetry, not something I would typically expect Vestans to read. But I wanted Vesta’s LFL to have a copy of Poetic Strokes—A Regional Anthology of Poetry from Southeastern Minnesota, Volume Four. That includes two poems I wrote, one titled “A school without a library.” (When I attended Vesta Elementary School, our library books were selected by students from the Redwood County Library in Redwood Falls 20 miles away and brought back to our school, then later returned and exchanged for a new selection of volumes.)

The other poetry book, Stone & Sky, was written by a Faribault High School English teacher who once lived in nearby Belview and who understands the prairie like I do.

Vesta resident and Vesta Commercial Club resident Dorothy Marquardt took home this book donated by Coffee House Press to Vesta’s LFL. Dorothy is an enthusiastic promoter of my hometown.

Dorothy Marquardt, a member of the Vesta Commercial Club, which worked with Bol on getting the LFL into Vesta, understands what a LFL will mean to area residents. Vesta recently saw its county bookmobile service end. “It’s kind of a godsend,” she said on Sunday, clutching a copy of Minnesota State Fair—An Illustrated History by Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky with foreword by Garrison Keillor. Marquardt is officially the first reader to pull a book from Vesta’s LFL.

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).

Monday morning, while dining in the cafe, I promoted the LFL to locals, moving between tables explaining how the library works. It operates on the premise of take a book, leave a book. Or take a book and bring a book back later to place inside the outdoor library. It’s all done on the honor system and done to promote literacy and encourage reading.

For me, the establishment of a LFL in my hometown is a dream come true. I always wanted a library while growing up. And now that I’m all grown up, my hometown finally has one.

The Little Free Library at the Vesta Cafe.


I’D LIKE TO ISSUE A NEW CHALLENGE TODAY. This one goes to the people of my native prairie, of southwestern Minnesota. I’d like to see more Little Free Libraries in the many small towns, like Vesta, that are without libraries and/or bookmobile service. Purchase a library via the LFL organization. Build your own. Work together—perhaps as a 4-H club or a church youth group or a civic organization or whatever—to bring a LFL into your town.

Be sure to officially register your LFL (there’s a small fee) so word of your library can be spread on the LFL website and via social media. Comment on this post and tell me that you are going to accept my challenge and bring a LFL to your community.

Finally, thank you, Todd Bol, for making my dream come true through your gift of a LFL to my hometown. It is my hope that the library in Vesta will inspire other communities to grow this project in rural Minnesota so that no child or adult, no matter where he/she lives, is without a library.

Thank you also to Karen Lemcke of the Vesta Commercial Club for working with Todd and me to make this project a reality.

This LFL, repurposed from a cranberry crate, needs a new home. Check The Redwood Falls Gazette to read how editor Troy Krause will be attempting to find a location for the library in southwestern Minnesota. Interested? Contact Troy.

FYI: Todd also dropped a LFL off in the neighboring community of Belview. And he left a third library with Troy Krause, editor of  The Gazette. Troy promised to publicize the availability of that third library. I’ll keep you posted on which town accepts the third LFL.

Click here to link to the LFL website and learn more about the Little Free Library project.

© Copyright 2012 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


For the love of reading: Little Library opens in Faribault November 10, 2011

Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault

GROWING UP on a farm in rural southwestern Minnesota, all I ever really desired in my hometown was a library, a place where I could check out books and then read to my heart’s content.

Today Vesta, population around 340, still doesn’t have a library, although the bookmobile stops along the one-block Main Street once a month.

Fortunately I have, for nearly 30 years, lived within blocks of Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault. I go there often as did my three children, all of whom possess a deep passion for reading.

Just like Joan Smith of Faribault.

Joan, a member of the Rice County Library Board, loves reading and books so much—she can’t pass up a bookstore—that she and husband Dale have opened a library, in their front yard on Faribault’s south side.

As part of a growing world-wide “Little Free Library” movement, this retired couple decided, when encouraged by fellow book lover and library board member Pat Rice, to start a free library.

Dale, known for the log cabin style birdhouses he crafts and sells, had the skills to build the little library. The Smiths sized up books before deciding on the dimensions of 18 inches wide and 12 inches deep.

I counted 31 books in the Smiths' Little Library when I stopped to photograph it. "We all find ourselves with too many books," Joan says. "We need a place to share them." Her place is a Little Library.

That's the Smiths' house to the right at 825 Sixth Ave. SW. Feel free to knock on the door to drop off books, ask questions or thank them. Or simply drop by, open the library plexiglass door and take and/or leave a book.

Shortly before Halloween, the Little Library, situated atop a post at Joan’s eye level and within about a foot of the Fifth and Sixth Avenues Southwest sidewalk intersection, opened. (And, yes, folks, I got that right; two avenues do intersect by the Smiths’ house at 825 Sixth Avenue Southwest.)

Detailed with doors, windows and shutters, the Little Library stands at the intersection of Fifth Ave. S.W. and Sixth Ave. S.W. Here's a back view of the library Dale built.

Joan gushes over a project that shares her passion for reading and which she hopes will get others excited about reading and using the local public library.

“It’s (Little Library) another step toward reading and becoming a lover of books,” she enthuses.

Joan enjoys books, always has, ever since she was a young child living in Mankato, the childhood home of author Maud Hart Lovelace. Her mother read Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series to Joan as well as Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

Later, when the family settled in the Faribault area, Joan attended a country school with less than two dozen old books on a library shelf. But her mother took her to Buckham Memorial Library, a place with plenty of books.

Joan understands the importance of reading to success in education. Although few children live in her neighborhood, Joan encourages her neighbors to grab a book from the Little Library when the grandchildren visit. She also wants the Faribault community to know: “This is for everybody and you’re welcome to come.” Already, those outside the neighborhood are stopping at the library.

It’s a library without rules or library cards. Take a book. Take a book and leave a book. Leave a book. Whatever works, Joan doesn’t care as long as people are reading.

You never know what books you'll find in the Little Library. Joan says she momentarily panicked after spotting a book with a library label. Turns out the donated book was a library discard.

She’s stocked the Little Library with books gathered from her home and from family members: mysteries and westerns, easy-reader children’s books and picture books, classics and the popular vampire series for teens and, well, whatever Joan collects, buys or no longer needs.

And, yes, the Smiths are accepting donations to their library. They’ve been asked, “What if everyone starts bringing you books?”

“That wouldn’t be a problem,” Joan responds. If she can’t use the books in their library, she’ll donate them wherever they are needed.

Dale Smith is open to considering requests to build little libraries. But the couple encourages interested individuals to construct their own libraries. (Dale’s pretty busy with that birdhouse building.)

Joan hopes their Little Library in southwest Faribault inspires others to open mini libraries and to read, yes, to read.

The Little Library is located right next to the sidewalk in the Smiths' front yard.

A front view of the Little Library looking toward Fifth Avenue Southwest.

FYI: Click here to visit littlefreelibrary.org for details on this library movement, including locations of existing libraries and how to start your own.

The website lists the following Little Free Library sites in Minnesota:

If you know of a Little Free Library in your neighborhood or plan to open one, submit a comment. I’d like to hear.

I’D LIKE TO CHALLENGE the residents of Vesta to start a Little Free Library. How about in or near the Vesta Cafe? Make my dream of a library in my hometown come true. I’ll even bring some books for the library the next time I’m “back home.”

Main Street Vesta and the Vesta Cafe, perhaps the perfect spot for a Little Free Library.

And I was thinking… maybe I should open a Little Free Library. I live along a well-traveled street in Faribault with lots of kids in the neighborhood. I love books, love to read…  Say, Dale, are you up to building another library?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling