In 2010, Todd Bol’s neighbors gathered at his home in Hudson, Wisconsin, for what was intended to be an ordinary garage sale. But the most memorable piece among the offerings wasn’t a priceless antique or a flashy family heirloom—in fact, it wasn’t even for sale.
The item in question was a 2-foot-by-2-foot wooden box, painted to resemble an old-fashioned schoolhouse, mounted to a post in his front yard and filled with books. Bol had created it as a tribute to his mother, a former schoolteacher and book lover, with the intention of creating a small neighborhood book exchange.
People were so taken with the idea that Bol built a few more book boxes and gave them away. Then he partnered with his friend Rick Brooks to found an organization promoting his endeavor, which they decided to call the Little Free Library.
Inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s goal of constructing more than 2508 (full-sized) free public libraries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bol and Brooks set out to mimic his work in miniature: By the end of 2013, they wanted more than 2508 Little Free Libraries in existence across the nation.
Over the next two years, the hopeful founders saw the early enthusiasm from Bol’s neighbors mirrored in communities all around the world. With the help of media coverage from national outlets like NBC Nightly News, Bol and Brooks surpassed their goal in August 2012, and, by the end of that year, 4000 Little Free Libraries had popped up just about everywhere.
“I thought it was just a flash in the pan, like a pet rock,” Bol’s brother Tony told The New York Times. But the Little Free Library continued to see lightning growth, even after its founders were no longer spearheading the operation—Brooks retired in 2014, and Bol passed away from pancreatic cancer four years later.
Today, there are more than 90,000 registered Little Free Libraries in 91 countries, from Finland to Chile, Nigeria to Pakistan, and beyond. The organization has collaborated with authors like John Grisham, run promotions for films like 2019’s Little Women, and donated more than 1000 Little Free Libraries to communities in need with its Impact Library Program. Throughout all the expansion, its mission has remained remarkably unchanged: Take a book, leave a book, and strengthen your community through literacy.
“Whether you strike up a conversation with someone at your library or find a thank you note from a neighbor in your library, you’ll feel more connected to your community,” Margret Aldrich, author of The Little Free Library Book, tells Mental Floss.
The tiny libraries can inspire a new generation of book-loving humanitarians, too.
“When a child helps run a Little Free Library, they not only get excited about reading, they take pride in caring for the little library, keeping it neat and full of books, and realizing how wonderful it feels to share books and give back to their community,” Aldrich says.
There are countless ways to contribute to Little Free Library, which range from monetary donations to constructing your own book-sharing box. Read on for more information on how to get involved, and explore the Little Free Library website here.
Leave a few books in your local Little Free Library.
The Little Free Library has an interactive map where you can search for a nearby book-sharing box. If you live in the U.S., there’s probably one closer than you think.
As for deciding which books to contribute, that’s entirely up to you. According to Aldrich, children’s books “are often the first things to fly off the shelf,” and picture books and graphic novels are especially great for reluctant readers. For advanced readers, a few of her own personal favorites have been Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
Establish your own Little Free Library.
For people looking to establish book sharing boxes in their communities, Little Free Library offers a wealth of resources, including building blueprints, installation tips, and more.
If you’re not quite comfortable making one from scratch, don’t worry—the organization has an online store with a variety of already-constructed models and several DIY kits, too.
Start an Action Book Club.
The free Action Book Club program encourages people to combine reading and community service. Essentially, you register your group here, you pick a book to read and discuss, and then you complete a service project in your community. After that, you can share your experience here for a chance to be featured on the Little Free Library website.
Donate to the cause.
Because Little Free Library is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, all monetary donations are tax-deductible. After you make a donation, you’ll receive a confirmation email that you can use as a receipt.
Your donations will go toward the installation of new libraries through the Impact Library Program, resources for Action Book Clubs, and more of Little Free Library’s philanthropic projects.