Little Free Library: Zero to 10,000 in 4 years

WOODBURY, Minn. - Like a used car lot on a Labor Day weekend, flags are fluttering on Qin Tang's lawn.

The gas and electric are both marked, a post-hole digger is in the ground and in a few minutes Tang will be the latest steward of a Little Free Library.

"We're exchanging books, but we're more about people getting together with neighbors," says Tang, a librarian by profession. "It's more about neighborhood."

Whatever it's about, it's caught on in a big way. The Hudson, Wisconsin-based organization recently registered its 10,000th library, just four years after the first one was placed on a post in front of the home of the organization's founder, Todd Bol.

"This is Little Free Library world intergalactic headquarters," deadpans Bol as he welcomes visitors to the nondescript steel building outside Hudson that now houses Little Free Library and its handful of workers.

Bol gleefully picks up the July issue of Reader's Digest Magazine, in which Little Free Libraries have been named one of the "50 Surprising Reasons We Love America."

"We beat toilet paper and Bill Gates," Bol laughs.

Sliced bread was No. 10 on the list "and at the heel of sliced bread, in the No. 11 position, is Little Free Library."

Bol was taking time off after selling a business when he built the first little library from pieces of an old garage door. He made it to honor his deceased mother. He loaded the little wood box with his mother's books as a way to share with his neighbors, and the rest is history.

"People are making their own now out of microwaves, refrigerators, beehives, gas pumps," says Rick Brooks, who joined Bol in launching Little Free Libraries.

Four hundred people had registered their libraries by the end of 2011, 4,000 by the end of 2012 and more than 10,000 today.

"About 50 countries, all 50 states, all across Canada," says Bol.

All of them built on a simple premise of neighbors connecting to share books.

"Take a book, leave a book," instructs a sign on each registered Little Free Library.

Bol still builds some of the libraries himself in his shop, but now farms out work to five other carpenters. Hudson High School students recently completed several Little Free Libraries headed for Africa.

Bol says nearly 80 percent of today's Little Free Libraries are built by their owners, some from plans the organization offers, but many inspired by the builders' creativity.

Whoever builds them, little free libraries -- at their best -- become a sort of community property.

"You're the first one," Tang tells a neighborhood child as she slides a few children's books into the newly erected Little Free Library.

Nearby, one sister sits on Tang's lawn reading to another sister.

The little box has only been up only a few minutes, but neighbor Michelle Kujak is already seeing the benefits.

"Two people I've already met I didn't know before," she says.

For Tang, it's just the beginning of stories to come, in and outside the box.


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