News / Toronto

Why these radical librarians dislike the Little Free Library non-profit

In a new journal article, two academics argue the Wisconsin-based “take-a-book, leave-a-book” non-profit doesn't live up to its goals.

Jordan Hale has co-authored a critique of the book exchange system known as Little Free Libraries.

Eduardo Lima / Metro Order this photo

Jordan Hale has co-authored a critique of the book exchange system known as Little Free Libraries.

Toronto’s radical librarians do not like the Little Free Library organization.

In a study published in the Journal of Radical Librarianship (which is real!) Ryerson librarian Jane Schmidt and U of T reference specialist Jordan Hale argue that the neighbourhood mini-libraries don’t live up to their stated goals.

“Who could critique a little birdhouse of books?” Hale rhetorically asked Metro, adding that she is strenuously pro-literacy and pro-trading-books-by-the-side-of-the-road. But their paper does just that.

“We posit that in absence of any research or evidence of an issue to be addressed … simply encouraging literacy in an already information-rich and privileged environment is hardly a heroic charitable act,” Schmidt and Hale wrote.

“We don’t have any issue with book swaps or exchanges,” Hale explained in an interview, adding she has obtained many excellent books that way. She is not, however, pro-Little Free Library, stating her issue is with the organization and not the idea.

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Hale and Schmidt mapped out the locations of the registered take-a-book, leave-a-book fixtures in Toronto. She found that they were predominantly located in white, affluent neighbourhoods and clustered in locations already well served by the public library system. Despite the organization’s stated goal, they were not located in “book deserts,” those neighbourhoods most in need.

Little Free Library also provides no-cost depots through a donor-driven fund, but Hale claims, “We didn’t see any evidence that the money was going anywhere.”

The non-profit told Metro that they have set up hundreds of units through the donor program, including 40 in the U.S. over the past eight months, and look to continue to add more. The organization has 50,000 registered little libraries around the world.

“Through these Little Libraries, millions of books are shared each year,” spokesperson Margret Aldrich wrote in an email.

Hale expressed concern that some jurisdictions turn to Little Free Libraries following cuts to full-scale libraries and that they are not an adequate substitute.

She encouraged people to support their local public library, use the Community-Led Libraries Toolkit and to support literacy initiatives in communities that need them most.

About Little Free Library  

The Wisconsin-based non-profit started in 2009 when Todd Bol erected a charming “take-a-book, leave-a-book” structure on his property. After his successful experiment went viral online, the organization grew. There are now 50,000 registered Little Free Libraries worldwide.

The registration fee for each library ranges from $42–$89 US, and the organization sells pre-fabricated units for $179–$1,254 US. Participants can also build their own unit and just pay the registration fee.

With files from Genna Buck

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