How the Little Free Library project launched a global trend.

A Library That Hangs From a Tree

A Library That Hangs From a Tree

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 14 2015 11:41 AM

Tiny Libraries

Borrowing books from the world’s nooks and crannies.

Didier Muller's Librairie Urbaine, left, the Bucherwald miniature library, center, and  One, Two, Many, a shed-like library intended to be used by only one person at a time.
Miniature lending libraries are leading the communal book revolution, bringing reading material to the masses at a level that far exceeds their size.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Didier Muller/House Work, BauFachFrau, Marta Wengorovius/João Wengorovius.

Excerpted from Improbable Libraries: A Visual Journey to the World's Most Unusual Libraries by Alex Johnson. Out now from the University of Chicago Press.

Tiny libraries in converted phone booths, purpose-built kiosks, experimental art installations, quirky handmade boxes—and even one refrigerator—are springing up on street corners around the world at a rapid rate. These miniature lending libraries lead the communal book revolution, bringing reading material to the masses at a level that far exceeds their size.

 Longstock Parish Council's telephone-box library.
Longstock Parish Council’s telephone-box library.

Courtesy of Bonnie Alter

In an age when online reading on smartphones and tablets seems to threaten traditional brick-and-mortar libraries, the introduction of mobile phones has inadvertently given rise to a whole new type of library building: the telephone box. By 2002 British Telecom had 92,000 phone boxes in Britain, but about half of these have since been removed in response to the bulldozering popularity of mobile phones. Rather than simply rip out the rest, the company came up with its Adopt a Kiosk program in 2009. Communities were offered the chance to buy one of the iconic red telephone boxes for 1 pound and encouraged to turn them into spaces that local residents would actually use. The scheme has been a great success, and in more than 1,500 of these pieces of microarchitecture (originally designed by Giles Gilbert Scott and launched in 1935 for King George V’s Silver Jubilee), grocery stores, wildlife information centers, tea rooms, art galleries, and defibrillator points have been set up, as have dozens of new community libraries. Their lending rules vary as much as their official titles—book exchange, book swap, book box—but most operate on an honesty basis. Local users take and return books from shelves added inside the telephone box, donating additional books at will, and there are no fines for late return.

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It isn’t only in rural areas that unused phone boxes are being transformed into libraries.

"I'm interested in pay phones because they are both anachronistic and quotidian," says artist John Locke of the motivations behind his "Department of Urban Betterment" project.
“I’m interested in pay phones because they are both anachronistic and quotidian,” says artist John Locke of the motivations behind his Department of Urban Betterment project.

Photo by John Locke

Architectural designer John Locke has repurposed four phone booths in New York City as pop-up libraries, the latest at Amsterdam Avenue and West 87th Street. His first attempt ended earlier than expected when somebody walked off with the entire stock within a few hours, so for the second, Locke added a visible logo to the spine of each book to discourage theft. His ultimate aim is to preserve the special social space that phone booths provide in cities. “They’re dead technology, perched on the edge of obsolescence, harking back to a lost shared public space we might no longer have any use for. But they can also be a place of opportunity, something to reprogram and somewhere to come together and share a good book with your neighbors.” Books for his kiosks, part of his Department of Urban Betterment project, are donated by local residents. Locke designs and makes the plywood shelving that he then hangs from the booths, which are still fully functional for calls.

The Bucherwald miniature library is by design firm BauFachFrau.
The Bücherwald miniature library is by design firm BauFachFrau.

Photo by BauFachFrau

These telephone-box libraries have inspired a wide variety of other tiny outdoor libraries on street corners around the world, including Bücherwald (“Book Forest”) made by BauFachFrau in Berlin from entire tree trunks.

The Think Differently Book Exchange was part of the Gap Filler urban regeneration initiative.
The Think Differently Book Exchange is part of the Gap Filler urban regeneration initiative.

Courtesy of Hannah Airey/Gap Filler

Even a disused commercial refrigerator has been repurposed as an urban minilibrary, as part of the Gap Filler project in New Zealand following the Canterbury earthquake.

Didier Muller's Librairie Urbaine is an installation of small suspended cabins.
Didier Muller's Librairie Urbaine is an installation of small suspended cabins.

Courtesy of Didier Muller/House Work

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Elsewhere, artists such as Didier Muller and Marta Wengorovius are making outdoor art installations that also function as tiny libraries.

Portuguese artist Marta Wengorovius's peripatetic One, Two, Many
Portuguese artist Marta Wengorovius’ peripatetic One, Two, Many project, designed with architect Francisco Aires Mateus, features a shedlike library intended to be used by only one person at a time.

Courtesy of Marta Wengorovius/João Wengorovius

Perhaps the most successful tiny library project of the 21st century has been the Little Free Library (motto: “Take a book, return a book”). These handmade weatherproof book cabinets, which often look rather like oversize bird boxes, are placed in front gardens, bus stops, and parks, but also in coffee shops and near restaurants. Anyone can remove a volume and deposit another to share.

A Little Free Library in a park in Iowa.
A Little Free Library in a park in Iowa.

Courtesy of Little Free Library

The first library box, built by Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2009, was a model of a one-room schoolhouse designed as a tribute to his mother, a former schoolteacher who loved reading. He erected it on a post in his front yard and then teamed up with social enterprise expert Rick Brooks. The project has since seized the public imagination: It is now estimated that there are more than 12,000 Little Free Libraries around the world, most in the U.S. and Canada, but also in countries including Ghana, Pakistan, India, and the Netherlands.

The Mirror Library was moved around several different locations in New York City.
The Mirror Library was moved around to several different locations in New York City.

Courtesy of Seung Teak Lee/Mi Jung/Andrew Ma/stpmj

The architectural element of these libraries inspired an intriguing project in New York City in 2013 involving the Architectural League of New York and the PEN World Voices Festival. Architects were paired with Lower Manhattan community organizations to design small book “shelters” for their various neighborhoods. In keeping with the ethos of the Little Free Library movement, the participants were asked to provide open-source design guidelines and installation instructions, permitting others to replicate these libraries in new settings. Among those who took part was Seung Teak Lee from interdisciplinary architectural practice stpmj, whose “Mirror” library, built with Mi Jung and Andrew Ma in the Bowery neighborhood, was designed to split into two pieces for easy portability and assembly, allowing it to be mounted on light poles, street signs, or trees.

A Little Free Library designed by Stereotank and errected outsid
A Little Free Library designed by Stereotank and errected outside St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral School in New York City's Nolita neighborhood also allows users to play peek-a-boo with each other or shelter from the rain.

Courtesy of Marcelo Ertorteguy and Sara Valente/Stereotank

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Another eye-catching design came from the firm Stereotank, run by architects Marcelo Ertorteguy and Sara Valente. Unlike other Little Free Libraries, this design was partly “inhabitable”: The structure was built out of an upside-down plastic tank and a wooden frame with perforations that allowed visitors to peek inside before ducking underneath to visit the book collection.

The Story Tower was built by students at Riga Technical University in Latvia.
The Story Tower was built by students at Riga Technical University in Latvia as a temporary open-air reading room and book exchange shelf for the town of Cesis, whose local library was closed for renovation.

Courtesy of Chloë Leen/Theodore Molloy/Thomas Randall-Page/Tõnu Tunnel

A particularly ambitious—even “monumental”—tiny library is the timber-frame Story Tower built in 2013 by design students of Riga Technical University in Latvia to provide the town of Cesis with alternative facilities for reading and book borrowing while the local library was closed for renovation. More than 2,500 shingles made from recycled Tetra Paks cover the roof, and bookshelves line its underside, forming a sheltered open-air reading room and book exchange inside the tall, tentlike structure.

Reprinted with permission from Improbable Libraries: A Visual Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Libraries by Alex Johnson, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2015 by Alex Johnson. All rights reserved.

Alex Johnson is a journalist at the U.K.’s Independent.