Little Free Libraries: What Local Book Exchange Says About Our Communities

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There are over 60 Little Free Libraries (LFLs) in Redwood City, Atherton, Menlo Park, and East Palo Alto combined. However, these small wooden boxes, part of the Little Free Library organization’s efforts to build community and interest in reading, are unevenly distributed. Redwood City has 33, Menlo Park has 34, and Atherton and East Palo Alto each have one. 

More revealing is the geographical placement of these libraries: only seven libraries are located on the east side of the Bayshore Freeway, three of which are in Belle Haven. In one neighborhood, there can be two or three LFLs on the same street; in another, there can be none at all. The organization’s motto, “Take a Book. Share a Book,” is not reaching all of our neighborhoods.

There are several factors that could contribute to the disproportional distribution of LFLs. Data from Little Free Library’s map is strongly dependent on stewards (the owners of LFLs) since they are responsible for putting their libraries on the map. Some stewards choose not to do so, while others make their own libraries without going through the organization. Libraries are automatically registered if you purchase a library from the LFL store for a few hundred dollars. To register a homemade one, you need to buy a charter sign ($39.95). The initial cost is less of a burden for those in wealthier neighborhoods.

Senior Josue Aragon said he has seen a few LFLs around his neighborhood and at parks in East Palo Alto, but that they are rarely used. When asked why, he said, “I feel like some people assume that they may have to pay, so they don’t stop by.”

Without awareness, some may not know that LFLs exist or that they are free to everyone. The three-year-long Menlo Park Little Free Library Incentive Program encouraged Menlo Park residents to install LFLs on their property, and reportedly resulted in 27 libraries. Having more libraries in neighborhoods creates a positive feedback loop, as increased awareness can lead to neighbors following suit. The high number of libraries in Redwood City cannot be explained as easily, as the city’s website did not have a record of such a program.

The number of LFLs could reflect community members’ interest in or time available for reading. Nari Yee, a first-grade teacher at Laurel Elementary School, explained, “It takes a reader who really enjoys reading and who just peruses to say, ‘Oh, I think I’ll read that next.’ People who are busy, who aren’t avid readers, wouldn’t tend to go to places like that.” For a specific title, people would go to a local library or purchase it in a bookstore or online instead.

Education and the amount of leisure time may have an impact on the mindset towards reading. Yee said, “I think there’s going to be a correlation between education level and whether people have time to read and enjoy reading.”

U.S. Census Bureau data on education levels per city shows that, of these cities, East Palo Alto has the lowest percentage of residents—26.2%—with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Should communities, especially underserved communities, have more LFLs? Steward Kristina Cohen said, “Here’s a place where you can take something for free and enjoy it and also lend a book that you’ve really loved. I think that’s really important for today because we live in a really stressful place and communities aren’t always feeling connected.”

However, adding more LFLs doesn’t guarantee that they will be used. One of the issues with LFLs is that, when unsupervised, the books’ quality will decrease, and the LFLs will contain mostly older titles that are less eye-catching to potential readers. Another steward, Nancy Wagner, recommended the rise of LFLs in a community come from their own interest, saying, “I think it has to be organic. You know, somebody has to want to do it.” 

Both stewards mentioned the importance of Little Free Library’s mission to build community, and argued that in an age of technology, borrowing a physical book instead of spending time on digital devices solidifies a sense of community sharing.

Libraries in high-foot-traffic areas like parks and around schools would best build community connection. Aragon said, “It would definitely be great to add them [LFLs] in school areas because many children walk home and would be ecstatic to see them. At least I would’ve, as a child.”

Olivia Hom (she/her) is a senior at M-A in her first year of journalism. She enjoys writing about events and developments within the local community. In her free time, Olivia likes to spend time with friends, visit her local library, and draw digital artwork.

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