The little library on the corner

August 7, 2016

The branch of the Washington Area Teachers Federal Credit Union on Park Avenue in North Franklin Township typically sees customers looking for a home loan or planning on taking out a certificate of deposit.But on a recent morning, a visitor could find more there than just forms to reorder checks or applications to open an account. In a Little Free Library affixed to the wall next to the branch’s front door, there were copies of “The Martian,” the Andy Weir novel that served as the basis for the recent Matt Damon movie of the same name, the Cormac McCarthy novel “No Country for Old Men,” “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” from Mitch Albom, and a selection of romance novels and genre fiction. A handful of magazines also were in the mix.“Sometimes, someone will say something, that they’ve taken a book or left one” said Patty Johnston, the assistant manager of member services for Washington Area Teachers Federal Credit Union. “I have some books that I need to donate.“At a moment when the mission of public libraries has come under question thanks to the advance of the Internet, and the printed book itself is thought by some to be headed for obsolescence, there is one kind of library that has unquestionably been going strong across the United States - Little Free Libraries.The Little Free Library outside the credit union was the first to be constructed in Washington County, arriving in November 2013, and it has now been joined by a Little Free Library outside the home of physician Mark Mamros on Old Washington Road in Peters Township; on the grounds of the Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village outside Avella; and a Little Free Library was just added this spring to the office of Washington Area Teachers Federal Credit Union at Meadows Landing on Route 19.One also just opened in Waynesburg under the aegis of the Greene County Department of Recreation, and there are others scattered throughout the Pittsburgh region, from Castle Shannon to Ross Township.Each Little Free Library resembles an oversized mailbox or dollhouse, and their purpose is simple - passersby are invited to take a book, no questions asked, but are urged to put a new book in the free library to replace the volume they have taken. Each Little Free Library can be decorated as simply or as elaborately as a “steward” of the library would like, and some leave sheets of paper inside where people can record what they have taken and what they have contributed.The inaugural Little Free Library was built by Todd Bol in 2009 in Hudson, Wis., as a tribute to his mother, who had been a teacher and voracious reader. Bol fashioned his like a one-room schoolhouse and put it on a post in his front yard. The next year, Bol gave away 30 Little Free Libraries to friends and families, and struck on the notion of having more and more of them blossom across the landscape. Initially, Bol wanted there to be 2,510 Little Free Libraries across America, to match the number of free public libraries Andrew Carnegie built. Bol sped past that goal in 2012. As of this spring, it is estimated that there are 40,000 Little Free Libraries across the globe, with 16 million books being exchanged. The organization has outgrown its homespun roots and is now officially registered as a nonprofit organization. It has been showered with awards from the National Book Foundation, the American Library Association and the Library of Congress.We may be divided by a fragmented culture and a corrosive political environment, but Bol told the Twin Cities Pioneer Press in 2015 that he saw Little Free Libraries as a way to bridge these gaps.“The (political) right likes us and the left likes us. How do you say ‘no’ to reading? As a populace, we are upset that we are getting pushed apart when we want to come together. That’s what Little Free Libraries do.“When Bol created the first Little Free Library, “He saw how neighbors reacted to it,” said Margret Aldrich, a spokeswoman for Little Free Libraries and the author of “The Little Free Library Book,” which details the organization’s history. “It created a feeling of neighborliness and friendliness.“Little Free Libraries are probably not the first place to start looking if you are a collector of rare books, or on the hunt for signed first-editions, but occasionally some unusual items will turn up in the boxes. In a recent phone interview, Aldrich said a Little Free Library near her home in Minneapolis had an art book enclosed in a plastic bubble. The most popular item in Little Free Libraries? Children’s books, by a mile, Aldrich said, as parents part with books that their kids have outgrown.“There’s a good feeling about giving the book on your shelf a new life,” Aldrich said.The Little Free Library at Meadowcroft Rock Shelter and Historic Village was installed about a year ago at the behest of Mamros, who had become an enthusiast for Little Free Libraries after putting one in his Peters yard. According to David Scofield, Meadowcroft’s director, “It’s actually been more popular than I expected.” Since Meadowcroft is an educational institution, having a Little Free Library on the site is not out of place, he added.The Little Free Library at Meadowcroft apparently has had a visit recently by an enthuiast of westerns, since it contained copies of the cowpoke novels by Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, along with recent works by John Grisham, Wally Lamb and Stuart Woods.In Waynesburg, the Little Free Library is at the borough’s parking lot No. 4, which faces High Street. If it is successful, the county’s recreation department will place more Little Free Libraries in Greene, particularly in areas that are distant from the nearest library. It extends the department’s “book cart” program that had carts at the county’s three swimming pools in 2014 as a way to get young people interested in reading.When interviewed by the Observer-Reporter in 2014, after putting his Little Free Library in his yard on Old Washington Road, Mamros lauded the goals of the Little Free Library, such as “the sense of community and promoting reading. Those are very special ideals.”