The tiny boxes are very easy to overlook, often tucked away in quiet neighborhoods. From afar, they look like quirky and comically large mailboxes. However, these little libraries – free, crowdsourced book exchanges that usually run with the motto “take one, leave one” – are becoming more common around the city.
The Somerville Arts Council Trustees and the Friends of the Somerville Public Library established the inaugural little library around two years ago in Ball Square. It was created as part of a project to turn old call boxes around town into urban art pieces so that the structures wouldn’t become trash. They were inspired in part by the Little Free Library project that began in Wisconsin back in 2009, although they aren’t affiliated directly with that organization. Since then, little libraries have been popping up all over Somerville.
It’s such a simple concept. These little libraries host a small collection of books – all genres welcome – that are free for the taking. Book exchanges are suggested, but the libraries operate under no strict guidelines, so people can take whatever they want even if they have nothing to give. No library card needed: The libraries are self-serve, free standing structures that, according to those who manage them, bring communities together.
“Usually it’ll be totally full of stuff,” said James Fox of the Friends of the Somerville Public Library and curator of the Ball Square box. It’s pretty low maintenance, Fox said, noting that he rarely has to refill it.
Something about the boxes seems to speak to the people of Somerville. Fox said that the shelves in the box in Ball Square weren’t even finished yet when people started walking up to it. When the plastic doors blew off last year during a storm and the library remained empty for a couple of months, there was a demand to bring it back.
“Some people love books, and people who do are usually quite passionate about it,” Fox said. “There’s something quite tactile and slightly community about it.”
“It’s cute, for one thing,” said Ruth Faris, the caretaker of a homemade library built by a friend of hers. When she unveiled the library in October, she held a small neighborhood party as a sort of grand opening. The library has served as an opportunity for the community to express itself in different ways. When Faris held the launch party, neighbors brought books to donate to her library. She also has an ongoing shingle-decorating project for the library, allowing residents to contribute to the structure in a more creative way. And if nothing else, the people are certainly taking notice.
“One day I was coming home and I saw the recycling truck, and the guy from the truck jumped out of the car and he saw it and said, ‘This is awesome!’” Faris said.
Faris originally decided to set up the little library for her neighborhood, to create some “buzz on the street.” Two children from the block helped her paint it, and with her shingle project, she’s looking to bring more people in to contribute.
Since the winter months are upon us, it’ll be up to nature to see if these little libraries survive harsh winds and snow. But if they fall, there’s no doubt that they’ll stand again. And hopefully by next year, there will be more. Stained glass and mosaic artist Emily Bhargava says she is building one that will bring Somerville’s total up to at least nine. And, true to the community, there’s no competition.
“The more there are, the better it is,” Faris said. “Most people have never heard of them before, but once you know about it, you’ll notice them.”