How to install a Little Free Library: An interview with Teresa Douglas

Teresa Douglas is a resident of the Acadia Park neighbourhood at the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver, Canada.  She led an effort to install two “Little Free Libraries” in her neighbourhood.  I asked her about her experience.

How did you get the idea to set up a Little Free Library?

I started by researching “Little Free Libraries.”  I thought that our area could use a couple since we have a lot of students, a lot of kids, and low-income folks who don’t have cars.  So, there seemed to be a need.  I researched it and it looked like the Little Free Libraries had a good support structure for stewards, which is what they call the people who take care of the Little Free Libraries, and they have a whole pack of things for you to consider as you’re looking to be a steward—‘Where do you want to place the thing?’ ‘What regulations do you need to think about if you’re planning on putting one on someone else’s property (which was true for us because we rent and live on campus property)?

Who are these “Little Free Library” people?

They’re an organization based in Wisconsin.  Some guy put one up in his yard and decided to collect free books–people could take a book or leave a book.  (They’re called libraries, but you don’t have to return the books.)  They’re a not-for-profit organization. They’re trying to get libraries in all communities. They have a special focus on places that don’t have public libraries so that children and others who want to can have access to books.

Just how small are these libraries?

Most of the libraries look a bit like bird houses and they’re about as big as your microwave. They can fit about a dozen books.  Some of them are even bigger—some people make their own.

If a neighbourhood already has a public library, why would it need a Little Free Library?

Getting to the public library can be hard, especially if you’re a child and you can’t yet ride the bus alone.  My focus was on people who couldn’t leave the area for some reason.  Either they’re studying or they’re too young to be off on their own or perhaps their partner is studying and they’re home with the kids and they just don’t have a good way to get everybody on the bus and to the library.

How did you go from having the idea to having the Little Free Library in place and operational?  And, who was involved?

First, I thought about whether the community would want these libraries.  It seemed like, in our community, this would be something people liked.  They were already donating things, leaving things in the neighbourhood laundries for other people, including books.  Or, people would put books in a box and leave them outside because they couldn’t take them when they moved out.  But it rains a lot here, so if someone put the books out and it rained, that’s it–the books were destroyed.  If the books were in one of the laundry rooms and your neighbour didn’t immediately see them, they might get thrown away by the maintenance staff.  So, it seemed like there was an opportunity to organize the process of what people were already doing.

Another group is the campus housing authority.  They own all this land, so anything that we put on it should get approval from them because they’re maintaining all the outside stuff.

Then, there are the Little Free Library folks, and they’re happy to help.  You can order a library whenever you want. They’re not going to ask you a whole lot of questions, but they are there to help with troubleshooting and they give you some ideas on looking for grants to pay for these things.

So are they free or do they cost?

You need to buy the little free libraries.  When you put the books in them, there’s no cost to the people collecting the books.

And, how much does it cost, then?

I think I spent something like $1,500 Canadian to get two of these libraries and have them shipped from Wisconsin to Vancouver, plus the paints that we bought to paint them.

Did you have any financial assistance?

We had amazing financial assistance. There is something called the UBC U-Town community grant, which is intended to fund things that help build communities.  There was also the Acadia Park Residents’ Association. So U-Town gave us a thousand dollars and the Acadia Park group gave us 500 to cover the 1500.

How did you get permission to install the libraries?

I reached out to the ‘Residence Life Manager’ for the community and explained the idea and asked if this is something that was in line with the values of the housing authority.  And, there were a lot of people who were very positive about it from the beginning. They liked the idea of keeping books out of the waste stream. They liked the idea of the social justice aspect of it–helping people who don’t have access to books to have access to books.

The housing authority is part of a very large university, so the wheels moved a little slowly, but there were a lot of people pushing for this to happen.  There was some concern about safety and how we’re going to set this thing up and who’s going to maintain it.  My original thought was that I would have a bucket with a post and the Little Free Library on top.  They were concerned that it could topple and children might be injured, so they decided to bolt a post to the ground and put the library on that, so there would be no chance of children jumping on it and having a big thing of books fall on them.

Who maintains the Little Free Libraries?

That would be me.

Have they taken a lot of work to maintain?

Not really.  One of them is not too far from my house and the other one is on the way to the community mailbox, so it’s part of my daily routine to walk past them as I go for the mail and just make sure that somebody hasn’t book bombed (left a whole ton of books crammed in them).  I reorganize things and make sure that there hasn’t been mischief.  It’s all written into my contract with the housing authority that I will maintain these things and that, if I can’t find someone to maintain them when we leave the area, that I will take them with me.

What problems did you anticipate before installing these libraries, and have any of these problems occurred?

Well, from reading through the Little Free Library steward posts (there’s a Facebook group of these folks) you expect that there will be vandalism, but I haven’t had any vandalism.  I’ve had people take a couple books and rip them up—but, those were kids and I used the neighbourhood facebook group to talk about that.  And that only happened once. There was the question of whether people would leave so many books that it would be unsightly, but this hasn’t been a problem.  Sometimes I have to send books to the recycling if they are damaged.

Has the program has been successful?

It’s been hugely successful and it’s really funny to see people stop to look at books, and I have to remind myself that nobody needs a grown woman squealing at them because they’re using the Little Free Library.  So, I try not to do that.

What are your recommendations for someone else who is considering putting up a Little Free Library in their neighbourhood?

If you own your own home, put your library on your property (but make sure you find out where all the underground pipes are first). If you rent, then spend a lot of time going through approval processes for your area– from your landlord, your city, your municipality–because there are people out there that will help and people that will be positive about it, but you’ll want to have an elevator pitch on why this would be a good thing and how you’re going to help keep this from becoming a problem for somebody else to solve.

Any final thoughts for us?

It’s been great to have them and I enjoy being a steward.

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Over 75,000 Little Free Libraries have been installed.  Two of them are in Acadia Park.  If you would like to buy one, or just learn more about them, go to littlefreelibrary.org.  Happy reading.

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