Following in Carnegie’s Footsteps, One Little Free Library at a Time

My awesome Mom, Sue Garvin, recently installed a new book-based feature in her backyard and I asked her to write about it in the hopes that some Bushwick members would be inspired to build their own.

Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish born man from a poor family who immigrated to America with his parents in 1848. He became one of the richest men of his time through investments in the steel industry, railroad sleeping cars, bridges and oil derricks. In 1889, he wrote “The Gospel of Wealth” wherein he urged the wealthy to use their money to improve society. He took on many philanthropic projects, but the one still thriving today is his establishment of public libraries. All in all, he funded 2,510 libraries in 47 states, and countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Forty-Three Carnegie libraries were built in Washington State alone. Thirty-two of these buildings still stand and 14 are libraries to this day. Locally, you can find Carnegie libraries are in Columbia City, Fremont, Green Lake, Queen Anne, First Hill and West Seattle.

Well, that’s all fine and good, but 100 years after Carnegie, what does it have to do with modern day readers? We certainly don’t have his kind of wealth to spread around. Plus, we have so many media choices these days between e-books, audio books and massive amounts of data on the internet. Are old fashioned books still even necessary?

In 2009, Tod Bol of Hudson, WI, decided to find the answer to that very question.  He made a book exchange box for his yard in honor of his mother, a former teacher and book lover, who had died. When he showed his partner, Rick Brooks, what he had constructed, the Little Free Library movement was born. Between the construction and marketing skills of the two men, libraries began sprouting in Wisconsin and beyond. The organization has grown to include volunteers and a website showing the location of Little Free Libraries around the world. The original goal of building the same number of libraries as Carnegie has been surpassed. The purpose of the libraries is to promote a love of reading for kids, literacy in adults and to build community.

Since my husband and I are big readers and book lovers, we decided to join in the fun. Carpentry isn’t one of my gifts so I printed out the plans from the website and trotted down to our local unfinished furniture store. After some discussion on shape, size and materials, they were more than happy to build a library for me. Using the plans, they constructed my library to shield the books from the dusty Tri-City weather and water from both sprinklers and winter snow. They also included a post and mounting hardware so the library could be free-standing in my yard. I decided to paint my library the same color as our house (tan with a brown roof), with a bright red door.


970695_632958136723128_1491083467_n Next, we decided on a location. Our street is only a block long and doesn’t have much traffic, so we placed our library in the back yard, which abuts a park. Our son helped by digging a big hole and placing the pole in lots of concrete (Sacrete or Quickcrete work great and can be purchased at a home and garden store or a hardware store. We used three bags.) We braced the pole and let the concrete set for several days. Finally, one the concrete was ready, we were able to attach the library to the pole we were open for business! After we registered our library on the website, we received an official wooden sign to attach to it noting the “Take a Book, Leave a Book” policy of the library.


It is fun to decide what types of books to put in the library. We originally decided to fill our library with our own books, including science fiction, mysteries, chic lit, magazines, non-fiction and fantasy.  Soon, we decided to broaden our inventory to include kid’s books and coloring books, books about pets, travel, cooking, classics and popular books by authors such as Amy Tan, Elmore Leonard, Cesar Milan and Patricia Cornwell. We even included a book on how to make balloon animals. To find inventory for our library, I visited the local library’s book sale room and found kids books for 25 cents and all others for $1.  The free library web site also offers a starter pack of $100 worth of books for a nominal fee, so I purchased one of those to bulk up our library’s supply.20130824_115622

So far, the library has attracted people who use the adjoining park. There are always families playing on the equipment, practicing soccer, walking to the neighborhood pool or having a picnic. There are lots of dog walkers too. They often stop by to say hi to our dogs, so I left a small jar of dog treats in the library.


We have had lots of positive comments and no negative ones. To help spread the word about the new addition, I posted a sign at our neighborhood pool and plan to make flyers to distribute to our neighbors. I would like to post a flyer at the town library and also let the local newspaper know. They have already printed an article about two local little free libraries, so I’m sure they would like to know about the third one to be put up in our area.

So, how does one get started? First, decide what kind of structure to use. The website has many of ideas and free plans so you could summon your inner carpenter and build your own. They also have beautifully made libraries for purchase if you aren’t so inclined. Use your imagination and make it a family project!  There are libraries made from old newspaper vending machines and ones that look like English telephone booths and movie theaters. The most elaborate one I have seen looks like a grandfather clock.


20130824_115638After the library is built, decide on a color scheme and start painting. Bright colors are fun and attract lots of attention. If you are artistically inclined, paint a scene to make it more personal and interesting. I’d love to have an artist paint a picture of my two dogs on the library! Next decide on a location. Remember, if you want to place your library other than on your own property, you must have the permission of the property owner. Register your library on the website for the one-time fee of $34.95 and in several weeks your location will be listed online and you will receive the official wooden Little Free Library sign and other information about the libraries.


Start collecting books to put in your library and do remember that the motto is “Take a Book, Leave a Book,” so do not include books that you are not ready to part with, as they may be passed on to someone else and not returned to you. Book sales, garage sales and donations from friends and neighbors also work well to expand your inventory.  The idea is to spread a love of books to all.  Anything that looks interesting is fair game. Follow Carnegie’s footsteps and start a Little Free Library in your neighborhood.  Get to know your neighbors and spread the joy of reading!