Free libraries open up new page in book-borrowing

| Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

If people know anything about Andrew Carnegie, it's that he made lot of money making steel, and spent a lot of it building thousands of libraries around the world. In Pittsburgh, you're never very far from a Carnegie Library.

Todd Bol started his own library-building project in 2009, which has probably already surpassed Carnegie's total. He has spent very little, but has had plenty of help.

When Bol put up the first Little Free Library in his front yard in Hudson, Wis. — not much bigger than a mailbox — it was mostly just for fun. A few short years later, it has become an actual worldwide movement.

“A little puppy can enter a room and the biggest, burliest guy can go, ‘Oh, how cute.' I built a little library and had a garage sale,” he says. “Everyone who walked by said the same thing: ‘Oh, how cute.' It's amazing — it really opens them up.”

The concept is so simple, that adults may be a little suspicious at first. (The “free” bit tends to trip them up.) Kids, though, tend to figure it out immediately.

Open the door on the Little Free Library, and take a book. Return it when you're done. You can drop off additional books for others to borrow, if you like.

One can order a Little Free Library from Bol and his main fabricator, Rick Brooks, at The designs range from Double Wide Cranberry Crate for $250, to Little Red British Phone Booth Library, $600. There's also a page full of plans and tips for building your own. You don't have to pay the Wisconsin-based nonprofit anything, though Bol notes that material costs can be surprising. To get on the website's locator map, though, requires a fee of $25.

The appeal goes beyond free books. Not everybody thinks that building and running your own library would be fun — but for certain people, it's just too good an idea to pass up.

“They love books,” Bol says. “Books are a part of their heart and soul. They feel bad that they sell them to the used-book store for 25 cents. Sharing a book is like sharing a piece of themselves.”

That seems to hold true for Ann Kotyk of Sharon. So far, hers is one of just three Little Free Libraries listed in Western Pennsylvania, along with others in Smicksburg and Johnstown.

“We found out about (Little Free Libraries) from an article in the USA Today last winter, I believe,” Kotyk says. “I wanted to do it because I love books. I worked for Borders for 10 years, and was an elementary-education major. I have a lot of books, and wanted to share them with people, rather than just let them sit there.

“My husband built the box for me. We got it put up in June. (Because of it) I've met a lot of people in my neighborhood here. We have a nice neighborhood, and it's a good way to connect with people in the community.”

Bol says he gets this kind of feedback a lot.

“It's like having a front porch that extends to the sidewalk,” Bol says. “I get emails all the time from people who say, ‘I met more people in the last five days (since installing the library) than in the last 20 years.' Immigrant families, especially, say they've met all their neighbors this way.”

Soon after putting up her Little Free Library — filled with “mostly adult literature, beginning readers for the kids, picture books” — Kotyk found a note left inside.

“The second day, there was a note in there addressed to ‘Ann's Books,' from a neighbor that I didn't know. It said, ‘Thank you so much for sharing your books with us. My daughter is so excited to walk down and get new books.' So, we've gotten acquainted.”

Ed Patterson, the Indiana County Parks and Trails director, heard about the do-it-yourself libraries from his sister, a retired librarian. He thought it would be perfect for Smicksburg, a tiny tourist destination under-served by formal, bricks-and-mortar libraries.

“It has been very popular, including with the Amish up there,” Patterson says. “They're pretty big readers, though we don't really track who takes what. They like the Beverly Lewis books (Amish-set novels). We've put some of those in there. Quilt-making books. Also, just fiction books. There's a book on clock-and-watch repairs. I can't imagine who fixes clocks anymore except the Amish.

“We've talked about expanding it. A lot of the county isn't really served by a library. It doesn't really take the place of a library, but it helps.”

Jacqueline Simonich of Johnstown heard about the concept from her nephew in Massachusetts, who put one up. He brought one for her, a prefabricated plastic container of the type that usually hold free papers and advertising flyers.

“It doesn't do too bad, considering where I live, on the last hill,” she says. “There's a retirement home adjacent to my house. It's a nice concept. I put up a bench next to mine, so that people can browse the books. I planted some flowers, and made it really cute and inviting.”

Bol has been in Washington, D.C., all week, receiving an AARP grant for the project for working with isolated adults.

In Milwaukee, there are more than 50 Little Free Libraries. In Madison, Wis., there are more than 250. All kinds of creativity goes into their construction — some are shaped like phone booths, some like houses, and at least one looks like a canoe.

“Peace Corps workers are building them throughout Romania. We've got a doctor in Pakistan who is building a half-dozen of them. Someone has built 40 in Ghana (Africa),” Bol says.

Vandalism is rarely a problem, Bol says — and almost nonexistent for libraries placed in front yards. Communities tend to feel responsible for them. Stealing isn't typically a problem either.

“You can't really steal a free book,” Patterson says.

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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