An article at the BBC website reported last year that 343 public libraries have closed in the UK. That is a disturbing statistic. Will our libraries follow?
Perhaps I’m too pessimistic: the library closures in the U.S. have not been on that scale. The ALA (American Library Association) reported in 2016 that the number of closures of American libraries had dropped. Five states closed library branches in 2016, as opposed to 10 states in 2015.
You know who’s pessimistic? Canadian librarians. They are fuming not about a lack of government funding, but about the populist Little Free Library movement. They reason that if Little Free Libraries, those cute bookshelves-on-sticks planted in people’s front yards, pop up in every upper-middle-class neighborhood, public libraries will lose their clientele.
I have to laugh: if the Little Free Library is their competition, librarians need to upgrade their collections. But some Canadian librarians have anxiously studied the LFL trend in Toronto and Calgary and published results in The Journal of Radical Librarianship. You can read a mocking American editorial of the panic at Library Journal. And the LFL movement seems to me to be a good thing for librarians to back: there is a Little Free Library inside the Iowa City Public Library.
There are 60,000 registered Little Free Libraries internationally, and at least 15 on my urban walks. Today I went on a Little Free Library hike, carrying a bag of discarded books. I planned to visit six, but, Lord, it was almost the Equinox, and the sun went down just as I left books in the fifth. On another day I’ll visit the sixth.
Here’s what I saw:
FIRST STOP, in a residential neighborhood. I left a copy of Trollope’s The Prime Minister, the last in the Palliser series. This well-curated LFL has a mix of literary fiction and best-sellers: it is as good as it gets with LFLs. Today the shelf has Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, Elizabeth McCracken’s Niagara Falls All Over Again, a yoga book, a Maeve Binchy book, mysteries, and more.
SECOND STOP, outside of Snookies Malt Shop. Snookies is open just five months a year, so there has been no traffic in months. The majority of the books are romances and Y.A. books, among them the despicable Fifty Shades series. I left a copy of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover as a joke, hoping someone will mistake it for a romance.
THIRD STOP, in a residential neighborhood. As you can see, there is almost nothing there. I dropped off Hans Christian Andersen’s adult novella, The Ice Virgin. which, alas! was not for me. Surely someone else will like to continue his or her reading of Hans Christian Andersen.
FOURTH STOP, in a residential neighborhood. This LFL is very visible, strung with Christmas lights and in a high-traffic area. People take books but tend not to leave them. And so I donated two books, Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, a nonfiction novel about the March on the Pentagon in 1967, and Jon Hassler’s novel, Dear James.
FIFTH STOP, in a residential neighborhood. This is one of the loveliest of the LFLs, because the family keeps it neat and well-stocked. The choices in general would not be mine: Robert Ludlum, Mary Daheim, and a business book called Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. But they also have a Jane Austen and a Dickens, so I left Trollope’s Barchester Towers.
What are your Little Free Libraries like? Are they better stocked than the rather scatty collections in Iowa City, Des Moines, Adel, and Winona, Minnesota? Do let me know.
There’s one Little Free Library in my apartment complex and it’s TERRIBLE. Which is sad, because there is another LFL down the road that’s decent. But the one in my apartment complex has such crap: it’s mainly used as a dumping ground for the lazy parents who live here who don’t want to make the effort of donating their kids’ unwanted books to a charity or the actual library. Sigh. Maybe I need to stick some of the science fiction I read in there and start a revolution of having actual adult books.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with kids’ books, per se. I just want to see a little more variety! Especially since most of the aforementioned children’s books are of the Disney variety, which I’m not a fan of in general!)
Natalie, I so know what you mean. The selections are usually disappointing. I can’t believe people actually read those books. A few people seem to try to curate, but the dream of the Little Free Library is pretty much dead. (And yet there are so many here.)
The LFLs are really pretty dreadful and could never replace libraries.
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The figures for U.K. library closures hide the real depth of the problem. For every library that has closed there will be half a dozen other which have had their opening hours cut. My local library was open five days a week two years ago. Now it is open only on Tuesdays. Then there is also the cut back in buying levels. My local authority had a year recently when it didn’t buy any new books at all. The problem is actually so much worse than the headline figure suggests.
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Oh, this is terrifying. Even tiny towns here have public libraries with better hours than this.
Who can go to the library only one day of the week? What are they thinking? And that is something to fear here, as so many programs are being cut daily.
On Thu, Dec 21, 2017 at 4:12 PM, mirabile dictu wrote:
TWO days a week?! That’s insane. I have a lot of complaints about my town, but I can’t deny the library system is excellent. My parents’ town’s library system isn’t as good as the one where I live, but it’s way better than what you’re dealing with. I’m so sorry your local library is only open one day a week! I cannot fathom that.
Yes, not everyone can go on the same day!
On Thu, Dec 21, 2017 at 5:49 PM, mirabile dictu wrote:
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I love the little free libraries, as a Bookcrosser we have, dedicated shelves for books in some local cafes and pubs. People do take things, and occasionally leave them. UK libraries are really under threat. It is very sad.
I’m very sad about the UK libraries. Book Crossing hasn’t caught on here, but the LFLs are everywhere. A very similar concept, though the LFLs sometimes just sit there empty. I think the owners get bored.
On Fri, Dec 22, 2017 at 5:12 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:
It terrifies me how we’re allowing these cuts to go ahead in library services – almost as if the government want a public that isn’t educated… And yet they’re a vital lifeline and source of literacy and learning. Truly those in power are shortsighted. As for Little Free Libaries, I love the idea (and they *won’t* impact on real libraries, that’s just silly) – however, I’ve only ever seen one in the wild over here, and there was nothing in it for me! I have found nice Bookcrossing books on occasion, though!
Yes, I go for conspiracy theories when libraries close. What are they thinking?
The LFLs are disappointing, though I continue to give books. Since they first began appearing here, four or five years ago, I have taken only three books.
On Fri, Dec 22, 2017 at 6:55 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:
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I currently live in a city (in the process of changing that in the next month or so). I’m not aware of any Little Free Libraries around here. My experience is that if there were any, they’d be trashed in a heartbeat, filled with dog poop bags, or set on fire.
Oh, drat! So far none have been vandalized here, but I can see that happening. One IS in atrocious shape and God only knows where those books have been.
On Fri, Dec 22, 2017 at 6:59 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:
The LFLs in Toronto vary as much as in any city, I’m sure. We just did a mini-tour of the closest ones this morning, taking our time on a nice snowy walk to drop some literary fiction (Canadian and classic) and children’s workbooks (unused – the kids used separate sheets) and some new National Geographics in the kids’ one too (for school projects). One of them sounds a lot like Nathalie described but we have continued to leave things there and there is now usually at least one other really good book in the mix (and it’s a half-hour walk away so we are not checking regularly) there to tempt me. Today I swapped for the latest Elizabeth Hay novel, which was a lovely find! Perhaps it’s possible to change that kind of tone if one persists? But maybe not. All of your donations sound interesting and I enjoyed the glimpse into your local LFLs! (They would never compete with our pubiic system but we are very fortunate in this city.)
Yes, the LFLs are so limited here. It would be laughable if they competed with any libraries. I’ve only found three books in four or five years. Toronto has a much wider reader base, and I hope the mix here is not representative. I love the idea of walking to LFLs on a snowy day. We have not yet had snow. I
On Fri, Dec 22, 2017 at 1:13 PM, mirabile dictu wrote:
Another Toronto report!
I have four that I walk by fairly regularly–I live in one of those educated, middle to high income neighborhoods disparaged in the original article–and I do find books in them that interest me on occasion. Still, I’m sure I’ve left more than I’ve taken. And like you it would not even come close to replacing my public library. (Long live the TPL!)
The one box near me on a major street has been vandalized and repaired and is the least likely to have interesting (or sometimes even any) books in it. The others seem to do well.
Though the authors do not seem to be connected to the TPL, our librarians may feel a little threatened after our previous library-hating (and crack-smoking) mayor. Our new mayor in an improvement on that issue and most, but only relatively, I’m afraid.
I love Toronto, and can only imagine how great the Toronto Public Library is. (Ours is honestly not great, though it does at least get most of the new books.) And a library-hating mayor does put things in context.
We have so many LFLs here, and some are on streets where there is no foot traffic: some are lawn ornaments. But I donate books to those where people actually walk by, and they do seem to be taken–once I found one of them at Half Price Books!