Walking on a pedestrian path near Denver’s downtown late at night, I almost walked right past this little gem of community art. It is a birdhouse-sized library of free books.
The project started in Wisconsin in 2009, when a man simply put up a miniature wooden school house filled with books on his lawn as a tribute to his mother who loved to read. But as good ideas are bound to do, the gesture became a movement. His neighbors loved his little library, which were filled with books that he liked and wanted to share with neighbors. Since 2009, this movement has spread similar miniature bookshelves to neighborhoods around the U.S.
In Colorado, there are about 50 of these birdhouse libraries. The one I encountered in Denver is a perfect example of what makes them special. They aren’t just bookshelves of free, discarded books. These are books that others in the community loved, and they wanted to share their love with others. When so much of what we value is commoditized, these books are free to take, to return, share or keep.
And here’s the part that really inspired me: the little free libraries themselves are mini-sculptures, art works in their own right. They’re often made with recycled materials. The one I encountered was a collage of old wood, metal mesh, glass, metal or aluminum, and – what appeared to be – a car door armrest.
The organizers of the little free libraries say that what makes them special is that they are books curated by neighbors for neighbors, and that the libraries are art works that can beautify a neighborhood as much as provide a service. I agree.
Such a simple idea, with so much to offer, all inspired by a man who wanted to create a tribute that shared his mother’s love of books with others.
When I look at this little library, a symbol of an idea, of a shared love, of something that resonated with so many – I see more than a quirky little wooden box. I see what is possible when our motivations for what we do are connected to something bigger than ourselves. This man’s original idea was to honor his mother, and to express – in the way he could – her love for books. What he managed to do was not only express it, but communicate that love to others.
I didn’t take a book from that library. Nor did I even look at what books were on offer. I appreciated the library itself, examined it as a sculpture – as an idea. The books were almost tangential. The message it spread was visceral.