Remember Spencer Collins? As a 9-year-old growing up in Kansas, he wanted to find a way to share his love of reading with others, even those who couldn’t afford books. So he set up what’s called a “little free library” which is basically a take a penny, leave a penny jar, but for books. The idea was popular, as was the boy’s little free library itself. And yet, within months of its debut—the city where Spencer lived demanded that he take the library down or face a fine. A fine? For lending books? Given the myriad problems that face state and local governments across the United States, you’d think that little free libraries wouldn’t be a pressing concern. If anything, one would think that communities would want to support the decorative little rainproof boxes that offer free reading materials to kids of all ages (that means adults too!). But no.
It seems that these little free libraries are under fire in many states that include California and Louisiana in addition to Kansas. Officially, the problem with these monuments to literacy is that they are free standing structures that violate various persnickety city ordinances. These ordinances are in place to prevent say, building a shed or a guesthouse on your front lawn. Zoning laws aren’t really passed in order to keep people from reading free books, though that seems to be the unintended consequence of the crackdown. Oppressors of these little free libraries require citizens to apply for special zoning permits—which are not as free as the books being offered.
To many people, asking a child to apply for a zoning permit to share books with friends and neighbors makes about as much sense as making them get a business license for a lemonade stand. And yes, that’s something that actually happens. Spencer Collins’ family was told that people in his community complained about the structure—which has since been moved to the family garage. Really? People complained about a child sharing his love of reading? It was too unsightly or something? These sound like the same kind of people who go on Buzzfeed specifically to downvote cute kitten pics.
So what’s the real problem with little free libraries? The fact that they’re needed and embraced by their communities (save a few incredible sourpusses) may mean that the existing public libraries are underfunded or nonexistent. Is the closure of these tiny boxes of joy just an example of needless regulation stifling fun? Could it be a conspiracy hatched by people who think an unread populace will be easier to control? Or are some people such bad readers that they’re super jealous of anyone who gains enjoyment from books? The answer is probably some combination of these.
We would all do well to support these little free libraries. They’re a great place to put your own books when you’re done with them, and may also be a convenient way to find an author you’ve never read before. Maybe these zone-happy communities could relax with a good book instead of worrying about happy little book-filled boxes on their neighbor’s lawn.