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This month a librarian in Toronto published a study that brought up issues with the little free library movement and central organization behind the charter signs and world map.

I heard about the dot org in 2012, loved the idea, paid $25 or something for a cute charter sign, and added myself to the map. Not every builder has registered with the world org, when we stewards see a library with no charter sign we sometimes call it a rogue library. They're not bad, but I did write a blog post about why I think you should register. I choose not to publicize them much on the city-wide facebook page I run because when I see a rogue library I'm not sure if they want to be part of something bigger or open to visitors from other neighborhoods.

I've done a LOT involving libraries, and like every very involved volunteer I've had constructive criticism. I wish the organization would come out with an app or text listing of the libraries to make them easier to find, made my own version and offered them the code, they are not interested. Their app has been talked about but delayed and delayed and delayed for a good two years now. I asked why the charter sign price keeps going up - it's over $40 now. I'll happily pay for a charter sign for anyone in my community who needs one, it's just funny that it's the most expensive component of our scrap-built LFL.

Back to the news of the day. This toronto librarian basically said that little free libraries are more about cutesy "TWEEE!" than promoting literacy, book quality is low, they're going to upper-middle-class neighborhoods and not neighborhoods in need, the organization isn't basing its strategy on research. She claims that the organization is making money but not doing anything all that helpful. She has nothing against individual stewards, if we want to build libraries we should build them, but the umbrella is unnecessary.

I asked the simple questions first: is LFL's mission to promote literacy? No, it's to promote neighborhood book exchanges. So they're doing what they claim to do there.

Then in the comments around the articles, I kept seeing this discussion happen:

1) That organization is stupid, anyone could have done what they did with a free google map.
2) But they didn't.
3) My cousin made a map, it's got 10 libraries on it.
4) What's he doing to get more? Promote it, add to it?
5) Nah he doesn't have time for that.

I had looked at the staff list for LFL, which expands every year, and wondered why they have five paid staff members assigned to "communications and marketing". Suddenly I realized why.

They've succeeded in getting through the noise of the world to me and many others. I wouldn't have built a library if not for them. There are 50,000 registered libraries now and 45 or so in Wichita Kansas. Is it solving all the world's literacy problems? Probably not. But is it a net good? Probably.

And I'm reminded once again that ORGANIZATIONS make things happen. Sometimes for bad, but if you don't want them to be bad, you get involved. Frequently the organizations do good. People use "organized religion" as a derogatory term, when they're not discussing the history of major hospitals in the US. Protesters are usually criticized for organizing when they should just calmly sit at home writing to their senators, but major changes in our democracy have their roots in organizations working for years with lots of people to change policy. We love little simple one person stories, but when we look deeper we see that the one person had a lot of help.

So even though I've had my beefs with the big org, I remain a joiner. I keep buying charter signs. I keep going to meetings - SWE, Toastmasters, church, the makerspace. I help the girl scouts, I donate to amnesty, I join committees, I organize and help people organize. Plant a flag on a hill, everybody go up the hill. That's the only way I've seen anything get done.

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Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
siglinde99
May. 29th, 2017 01:12 am (UTC)
I read articles about that librarian when the story first broke. I think the LFLs are great, and you are bang-on with regard to organization, but in context she does have a point. Toronto is notorious for being cheap and cutting back at every opportunity. It is a city where half the population was born outside of Canada, and it's an expensive place to live so many of those immigrants are poor and without the connections to make sure their needs are represented. The wealthier inhabitants (the ones with LFLs) are the ones who vote and are loud about cutting back anything that doesn't benefit them directly. And NIMBY was invented to describe them.
ironphoenix
May. 29th, 2017 07:26 pm (UTC)
is LFL's mission to promote literacy? No, it's to promote neighborhood book exchanges.

Well... LFL's "About" page's second section reads
Why Does Book Access Matter?

One of the most successful ways to improve the reading achievement of children is to increase their access to books, especially at home (McGill-Franzen & Allington, 2009). But according to the U.S. Department of Education, up to 61% of low-income families do not have any books for their kids at home.

Little Free Libraries play an essential role by providing 24/7 access to books (and encouraging a love of reading!) in areas where books are scarce.
They certainly talk the game of promoting literacy, so I think the criticism that few LFL's are located in neighborhoods where access to books is not already pretty good sticks.

That said, I generally agree that organizations can accomplish more than disjoint individuals, at least for a while. Bloat can eventually turn organizations ineffective, but internal renewals are still possible.
petrini1
Jun. 1st, 2017 05:38 pm (UTC)
I agree that the Toronto librarian who complains about LFLs is short-sighted. Little Free Libraries are no substitute for full-size libraries. And they will not singlehandedly solve the problems of illiteracy and lack of access to books. But if the 10-year-old boy down the street can't get a ride to the public library and can find an Origami Yoda book in my Little Free Library that makes him happy, then I count it as a success.

She is wrong that the only books in LFLs are poor quality -- mine is often filled with popular, current books that look brand new, or tried and true classics in great condition. No self-published poetry or ancient Windows for Dummies manuals. I know which kinds of books are popular at my LFL and which are not. Occasionally someone will put in something that I know will not be taken, so I remove it.

She is also wrong that Little Free Libraries are found only in upper middle-class suburbs. I've donated books to LFLs in front of Title 1 schools, inside clinics that cater to people who can't get health care anywhere else, at the general store on the outskirts of an Alaskan fishing community, and in dilapidated inner-city neighborhoods. It's unclear how extensive her research was, and I can't speak about the locations of LFLs in Toronto. But in many parts of this country, they're in places where they can reach disadvantaged populations. Even my own block of mostly upper-middle class college graduates is just a block away from low-rent apartment buildings filled with immigrant families with non-English speaking parents, who can't afford to buy books for their kids -- kids who speak and read English at school. (I offer Spanish-language books too, but not nearly as many of them as I'd like.)

Yes, I could have set it up on my own. But I like the LFL organization. I like the publicity and sense of legitimacy that the organization brings to all Little Free Libraries. I like the FB forum for exchange of ideas among stewards of registered LFLs. And, if a friend hadn't offered to build me one, I would have taken advantage of the book boxes offered for sale by the Little Free Library organization, because I lack the skills to build my own. I've got nothing against rogue LFLs, but I appreciate having an organization to back me up (even though I agree that the price for a sign has gotten high and that the online map is inadequate).

It's a shame if some cities use LFLs as an excuse not to put more money into their actual libraries. But that's not the fault of the Little Free Library organization, but of forces that pressure governments not to spend money on making people's lives better, and of governments that give in to that pressure.



lookfar
Jun. 15th, 2017 12:56 am (UTC)
All good points. I'm not sure that LFLs are draining off any energy that would be spent elsewhere, which seems to be the concern. They seem friendly to me, and I always look in one if I go by. Are they U? Yes, like many other things that are adopted by people who are not scrambling every moment to survive. But I'm not sure that they suck any lifeblood away from any other book-access or literacy activities.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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