The Life of a Little Free Library in the Wild

A Little Free Library is a wonderful community hub, especially these days when the pandemic restricts contact and movement. My neighborhood includes three different communities, and each has its own Little Free Library. Each Library has its own content, but they all face one similar problem: an overabundance of donations.

One library, located near the city playground, offers children's books. The off-white double-door library is placed between two benches under large trees, surrounded by birdsong and the hum of passing traffic. Wide and squat, both shelves feature picture books and young reader chapter books. There are a couple of books for older readers nestled on the top shelf. 

The newest, and smallest, library is adjacent to one community's private park. The tall, narrow library can hold about a dozen books behind its strong, dark red door, and usually features a mix of adult and young adult reads. One large, heavy tome dominates the right lower shelf, but the rest typically is a mix of paperbacks and hardbacks.

The oldest library in the neighborhood, situated outside the local pool, is the largest of the three, and can fit literally dozens of books behind its bright blue doors.

I have contributed quite a few books to the libraries — bestsellers, popular fiction, and children's books. When the library is full, however, I take my donations back home for another day.

Not everyone does that, however, and that's the problem. The mess in these little libraries has become quite spectacular.

I pass by the poolside library during my daily walk. I am not "the librarian," but I manage the books just enough to keep it easy to peruse, easy to access, and easy to restock. I straighten the books so the spines are visible, stack the more delicate books together protectively, and transport the disintegrating books with ripped covers (and worse) to my home for rehab and re-release.

During the pandemic, I've seen a shift in community donation habits: the little libraries have become dumping grounds for tattered, ancient, and/or oversized books (the types of which I see in used bookstores "free" bins).  Donors shove books onto the shelves no matter how full the library already is.

Not only do I find this chaos an unwelcome sight, it also dissuades me from perusing the library. 

Lately, this overcrowding has become chronic. Although my first response is to straighten and cull, I have begun leaving the library alone for a week or so, to allow other users the opportunity to organize the books as they wish. In the past, the issue has resolved itself, so to speak, especially during heavy-use periods.

If the library remains in chaos, I wade in, rearranging books for maximum spine exposure, then carry home the "extras." Most recently, I carried home two armfuls of books that didn't fit, struggling under the weight of heavy textbooks (statistics and urban planning, anyone?), cookbooks from decades gone by, "spirituality" books, and a copy of The Book of Mormon

My husband eyed the stack, then commented, "You know, if they're gone, it could look like people love those books, and encourage more of the same."

He was right. The next day, face-out and propped up against the neatly stacked toms and visible spines was another copy of The Book of Mormon. (Apparently, someone was on a mission.) 

Within days, the library was again crammed with similar donations — plus handfuls of loose sheet music and crumpled magazines. Then, the day before a well-forecasted ice storm, came an open box of books slipped under the library. 

The other two libraries also are stuffed to the gills.

With this chaos on display, I'm not inclined to use any of libraries. My desire to peruse for possible good reads is deterred by the fear of the calamity that will ensue when I open the doors. 

Book lovers know the difference between "donation" and "castoff."  Even current donors with the most generous assessments should be able to make that judgment. I hope post-pandemic donations will reset to what we used to find in our Little Free Libraries. The future of the libraries, after all, is in the hands of the users.