Congratulations, you are the proud owner/manager/curator of a little free library. These are fantastic placemaking elements to add to any street, park or public space. They serve as coral reefs for community, serving as a place where people can meet their neighbours, strike up conversations, and discover new books!
Managing or curating a little free library (LFL) is not an onerous task, but there are a couple of recommended best practices that we’ve picked up, to ensure that your LFL remains part of your community for years to come. The overall message to take away is that the way you maintain your LFL sends a signal to those who use it. If the interior of your LFL is clean, with books that are neatly organized, visitors will generally leave the LFL in a similar state.
Keep The Books Tidy
As often as possible, tidy the books in your LFL. You can use any organizational system you want; some LFLs will have children’s sections on a lower more accessible shelf for example, or a larger shelf for magazines. I prefer to organize books by size, and arrange them to fill the inside of the LFL comfortably. My goal is to ensure, whenever possible, that the spines of the books are all visible, so that visitors do not need to poke around inside the LFL too much, and can tell at a glance if there’s a book inside that they want.
The benefits of organizing books within the LFL is that it signals to visitors that the LFL is regularly curated, makes a visitor more likely to stop and look inside, and makes it easier for visitors to do so.
Remove Detritus and Undesirable Objects
Little free libraries can accumulate all sorts of things over the course of a couple of days. Well-meaning neighbours may leave plastic bags, or other small non-book-related objects inside the LFL. Someone dropping off a load of books might leave the bag they brought them in for example. I’ve had people leave lost shoes, mittens, belts, and bungee cords on top of our LFL. It sits in a busy park, so the top of the LFL seems like a reasonable place to leave found objects in the hope that they will be reunited with their owners.
I generally remove any non-book-related things which end up inside our LFL, and for objects left on top, I move them to a nearby garbage bin, which is equally visible and prominent.
You will have to decide what kind of objects you want to distribute from your LFL. There are a number of ‘free shelves’ around town, including one on Pembroke. These are little free libraries, which also happen to share other things as well (or depending on your philosophical stance, shelves that share things, which may happen to include books). When I last visited the Pembroke Free Shelf for example, I found a set of drill bits, which I promptly donated to the Victoria Tool Library.
Running a free shelf is a little different than a LFL, and while this isn’t the place for a larger discussion about the former, I would note that if you start to allow too many things which are not books, the space for books may be overwhelmed. People also might start leaving things which don’t fit in your LFL around it, creating a mess, which may detract from visitors, create and eye sore, and risk creating animus towards your LFL. This is not to discourage you from starting a free shelf, but if you do, it will require regular maintenance and organization, and you should be prepared to remove a lot of items which are unusable junk.
But wait! Sometimes whimsical things can appear in your LFL, and it’s best not to “step on the unicorn of whimsy” (as they say). For examples, we’ve had a number of painted rocks travel through our LFL, and I even found a love letter taped to a discreet place under its roof. A couple of LFLs in town have also host a toy, puzzle, or board game shelf, which is a great way of engaging different people with the LFL.
To the lesson here is to remove things which don’t fit with the overall vibe of your LFL.
Remove Damaged Books
Seeing a well-thumbed copy of a book tells you that it’s a good read and possibly worth picking up. I’ve always been a little suspicious of an older book which has never had its spine cracked. However, books do not last forever and do fall apart. They can also get soggy if they happen to be dropped off on a wet day, or if water somehow gets into your LFL. While is it sad, I recommend that you remove these books and recycle them.
A good trick is to ask yourself, “is this a book I would consider picking up and taking home to read?” If the book is missing a cover, has pages falling out, is soggy, sticky, or badly water-damaged, you aren’t going to want to take if home to read, and others are likely to feel the same way.
Overtime, things fall off books, the wind blows in leaves, dust and critters, and you will find that it may be necessary to sweep out your LFL. This will help give it a fresh new feeling.
The overall goal behind organizing the books, removing foreign objects, and discarding badly damaged books is maintain your LFL so that it is inviting, encouraging the widest possible number of people to pop by and interact with it.
Curating Your Collection
You may also want to curate the kinds of books that are shared by your LFL. I generally prefer a hands-off approach, letting people add the kinds of books they read. Reading is all about exploring new ideas after all, and while you may not be interested in a particular book, it may be just what a neighbour and passerby are into. This being said, there are some materials that you may want to remove:
- Magazines: Magazines are great and inviting to a wide readership, however they may also be time sensitive, hard to fit into a LFL, and delicate. While a National Geographic may be timeless, a copy of US Weekly may become quickly dated. Not all LFLs are built to accommodate larger-sized magazines, and as a result, magazines are bent or folded to get them to fit, creating a messy look to the LFL. Similarly, given the lack of reinforced covers and the need to fit them into smaller LFLs, magazines can quickly fall apart, spreading pages or portions thereof, around the interior of the LFL (and beyond).
If you plan on allowing magazines in your LFL, you may want to add a special magazine rack like this one at the LFL on Government Street (see below, to the left of the bench). You can also build your LFL in such as way as to accommodate magazines. As always, adding a couple of magazines will encourage neighbours to bring theirs. Our LFL is too small for magazines, and I generally remove any that appear (and move them to others around town if the magazine is in decent condition). As a result of this vigilance, we seldom have any magazines.
- Religious Pamphlets and Advertising: There are religious books, and then there are religious leaflets. I generally remove copies of Watch Tower and associated materials, as they are not books, and clutter up the inside of our LFL.
Every so often we will have advertisements left in the LFL and we evaluate these on a case by case basis. Because we envision our LFL as a coral reef for the community, helping tell people about what’s going on in the community fits within this role. Therefore, when the local Boy Scouts were holding a bottle drive, we were happy to host their flyer, and similarly, we will regularly host leaflets for a local car share which has vehicles around the park where our LFL lives.
- Big Books: Not every LFL is the same size, nor can every LFL accommodate large books. When you are building your LFL, you should consider the size of books that it will be shelving, and construct it with the appropriate dimensions. Despite these efforts, every so often, an outsized book crops up. While these can be fun (we have a book about fish which is over a meter long), they can damage the LFL and also are less likely to find a new home. Outsized books protruding can not only damage the doors, but cause them to remain open, imperiling the entire collection to the elements. Likewise, few people come equipped to cart of a full encyclopedic dictionary whilst walking their dog.
Add Relevant Community Information
Building on the previous section, you may also want to go out of your way to include information about community events at your LFL. Some LFLs have bulletin boards where information can be posted, like this delightful little pocket place beside the Niagara Grocery in James Bay.
Our LFL has an upper shelf where we will often leave leaflets from the city, like this one, advertising Music in the Park.
As with the advice above, remove these after the event, and you may find that securing them with an elastic band helps keep them from spreading around the inside of your LFL.
Bookmarks, like these from our supportive MLA, are book-related and make great pieces of community information to include in your LFL.
Keep the Collection Fresh
You never know what books will languish on your LFL’s shelves like an unwanted house guest who has overstayed their welcome, and which niche books will disappear in seconds. Our LFL has a rough-looking 1973 GMC truck repair manual on its shelves for no more than 20 minutes, while an advanced reading copy of a very popular fantasy series languished for weeks.
As you regularly check on your LFL, you will notice ‘barnacle books’ which just stick to the shelves. If a book has been in the LFL for more than a month, consider pulling it out; you can drop it off at another LFL nearby, or simply cycle it back in down the road. Not everyone wants to read a Christmas cat adventure book in July after all.
Similarly, sometimes LFLs accumulate lots of books of one genre – someone moves out and drops off 34 large print paperback cowboy novels (true story). When you notice this, a good practice is to remove a number of these, and portion them out as time goes by. There’s nothing wrong with having a full Lord of the Rings trilogy, but a LFL full of nothing but self-help guides is not ideal.
Incidentally, if you are adding a trilogy or set to your LFL or notice one has arrived, we’ve found that a good practice is to tie the books together with some twine, as a polite reminder to visitors to take the whole set.
Celebrate Holidays – Have Themes
This is one of my favorite parts about curating a LFL! Remember the last thing I wrote about avoiding having an LFL filled with books of the same genre? Well this is the exception. A great way to liven up your LFL and celebrate the holidays you are into, is theming your books for that holiday.
Spooky, scary, and mysterious books stocked in my LFL for Halloween.
This can involve adding any number of books, and even decorating your LFL. Be aware that if you do add decorations, like a flag for Canada Day or Pride, or little holiday lights for the winter holidays, that these things may disappear, so don’t hang out your best flag for Canada Day.
For Canada Day, we filled our LFL with Giller Prize winners to celebrate CanLit.
Our LFL featuring a number of related books and flying flags for Pride.
You can stick with the major holidays like Canada Day, Pride, Halloween, or winter holidays, but you can also pick more whimsical holidays as well. Why not celebrate the birthday of your favorite author, or arbour day, or a significant local event. For example, we’ve done some of the following themes for our LFL:
Our LFL celebrating the start of the NHL Playoffs (and controversially for the west coast, supporting the Flames).
Our LFL stocked with environmentally-themed books for Earth Day.
Our LFL jam-packed with Doonestbury’s on G.B. Trudeau’s birthday (July 21 for those who are interested).
Our LFL on Remembrance Day.
We were kind of excited about the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, and so was our LFL.
Featuring French books for Le Festival de la Francophonie/French Fest.
Sometimes you can celebrate for no reason! Every year we judge all the LFLs in our park and award a blue ribbon to the best one (also, there’s only one LFL in the park!).
I get very excited about adding books to our LFL, and in the first months of curating it, I would make sure that it was jam packed with books every day. I realized however that my exuberance was actually limiting other people’s engagement with the LFL.
As a result, I recommend that you endeavour to keep the collection about two-thirds full. This leaves space for other people to leave books, thereby encouraging them to do so. It also avoids damage to books that comes from people trying to squeeze them onto the shelves, or even damage to the LFL.
You may notice that in the first few weeks of curating your LFL that more books are leaving then are arriving. This is generally on account of neighbours getting in the habit of bringing books along to the LFL when they go out, and it takes people time to develop habits. If people visit your LFL and find it constantly topped up, this habit will be much slower to develop.
You will also notice a cyclical process of book arrivals and departures. Someone who is moving out, or just doing some rigorous cleaning may drop off a huge collection of books at one time, and other times, it may seem as though there are few new additions. Here, the best advice is to remove books when your LFL is over full and hold onto them for the times when it is light of books. This ensures that the LFL has a consistent collection throughout the year, regardless of the vicissitudes of the season.
Sometimes your LFL will become damaged; entropy happens, as does the occasional act of malfeasance. In these cases, I recommend that you effect a repair as quickly as possible. If left unchecked, damage can worsen. A slightly damaged door is much easier to fix than one which has fallen off completely. And likewise, if your LFL does happen to get damaged through malice, the best way to discourage this kind of behaviour is through a quick repair. This is generally recommended as best practice for dealing with graffiti, rapid removal of graffiti discourages future acts. Do not be discouraged if damage occurs. Things wear out over time, accidents happen, and some people are just not yet inculcated into the wonders of placemaking. Additionally, LFLs, like many forms of placemaking, seem to reduce antisocial behaviour in public places. If you are interested in this, check out the literature onCrime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED).
Bring Your LFL Alive on Social Media
You can bring your LFL to life through social media by regularly posting on your channels or creating an individual profile for your LFL on your favourite media. This is a topic which I will cover in a separate guide.
Have fun curating your LFL and building community in your neighbourhood.
Author: Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, Pocket Places Project Lead.