Friday May 05, 2017

After Toronto librarian takes aim at Little Free Libraries, its co-founder pushes back

Todd Bol is the co-founder and executive director of the non-profit organization Little Free Library.

Todd Bol is the co-founder and executive director of the non-profit organization Little Free Library. (Courtesy of Little Free Library)

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One of the founders of Little Free Library, the non-profit that distributes birdhouse-like book exchange boxes, is defending his organization following criticism from a Toronto librarian.

On Thursday, Ryerson University's Jane Schmidt told As it Happens about a paper she has co-authored about Little Free Library. She pointed out that many of the boxes are located in well-to-do neighbourhoods — not in so-called "book deserts" the Little Free Library purports to help. She has also expressed concern that this project may undermine political support for public libraries.

Little Free Library

A Little Free Library in Minneapolis. (Courtesy of Little Free Library)

Todd Bol is the co-founder and executive director of Little Free Library. Here's part of his conversation with As it Happens host Carol Off: 

CAROL OFF: You speak on your website [of] "watering book deserts" — bringing books to places that don't have many. The librarian we spoke with last night, Jane Schmidt, she crunched the numbers in two Canadian cities — Toronto and Calgary — and what she found is that most Little Free Libraries are in places where people are financially quite comfortable and well-schooled, and have access to libraries, and also, probably, the money to buy the books. What "book deserts" are you serving?

TODD BOL: I agree with what she's saying. What happens is people listen to radio programs like this, or read about us, and they put up a Little Free Library in front of their house. They start to serve their community. Then what they do is they start to reach out and they start to put the Little Free Libraries maybe at the laundromat at a high-needs neighborhood. It starts expanding more and more, and as it gets more mature in a community, it starts to go to higher-needs neighbourhoods.

Also, we have an impact fund where people apply every month — hundreds of people, thousands sometimes — and we give out Little Free Libraries to high-needs neighbourhoods as much as we can. We encourage people not only to support their community as much as they can and put them in high-needs neighbourhoods, but also support our impact fund. We strive to give in more and more diverse neighbourhoods, everywhere.

Little Free Library

A Little Free Library in Traverse City, Michigan. (Courtesy of Little Free Library)

CO: I saw on your website the solicitation for contributions for the impact fund. It's also, as I understand, a US $40 fee to register as a Little Free Library. You say they're 55,000 of them. What do you do with all of that money?

TB: I've never been asked that. But, you know, we do the best we can to run programs … We try to put them in communities of high needs as much as possible and distribute to libraries. 

Jane Schmidt Ryerson University

Toronto's Jane Schmidt is a librarian at Ryerson University. She has co-authored a paper that looks critically at the non-profit organization Little Free Library. (Jane Schmidt)

CO: The other thing Ms. Schmidt points out … is that book exchanges, this idea, might tempt politicians to cut funding for public libraries. She cites this small town in Texas that has actually installed five Little Free Libraries and then said that they we're not going to be funding the library system in a place near El Paso. She's worried that this idea that citizens can do it for you … and that politics shouldn't be involved in these kind of things, and that the public funding gets withdrawn. What do you say to her?

TB: I say that's horrible. We support libraries probably as much, if not more, than anybody else. We're partners with the Library of Congress. We've won the American Library Association's Movers & Shakers award. We see ourselves as like a branch of a branch that celebrates libraries and celebrates communities.

As far as we're concerned, libraries are the great last bastion of community and community coming together. Anything we can do to encourage the public libraries ... is big for us. And if anybody ever used the little teeny library with 20 or 30 books in it to compare us to the big library and say that they shouldn't have that, that seems absurd.

CO:  You've got a part of the website where people can purchase these Little Free Libraries. They're quite extraordinary. One of them costs $2,500. Who's buying those boxes?

TB: We don't sell a lot of $2,500 libraries. We sell a few, once in awhile. Most of them sell around $200 to $250. That's probably the area that people most likely buy the libraries.

CO: What about the "walnut grove" with seven day shipping — US $995?

TB: Yes, we don't sell many of those either. But, we do have some customers that like them.

CO: So, who buys them?

TB: Attorneys. Maybe a law firm. Somebody that wants to do a special memorial for someone who has passed.

'We're 14 people in Hudson, Wisconsin that have made a pretty solid, positive impact around the world by getting book exchanges throughout there.' - Todd Bol

CO: And, again, what do you do with the money you get from those?

TB: We're a non-profit, right. What we do with our money is that we put all the money that's left over after expenses into programming, trying to expand. We're 14 people in Hudson, Wisconsin that have made a pretty solid, positive impact around the world by getting book exchanges throughout there. What we do is try to encourage, as much as we can, people to read and come together. We donate libraries all the time to police departments, fire departments, schools. We do all kinds of good things all around the place. You know, the idea that Little Free Libraries is a giant, behemoth, big organization … I find that rather interesting.   

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear more of our conversation with Todd Bol, listen to our full interview.