The emergence of the “Little Free Library” demonstrates not just the agility of individuals, but the stiff-jointed hoariness of government. Even as public libraries and their advocates bemoan their increasing irrelevance in a digital culture, they seem impotent to stop it. Succumbing to the perceived need to offer e-books, many offer online borrowing, contributing to their own demise by becoming the worst kind of middleman: one dependent on taxpayer dollars.
In doing so, they abandon their foundation, and perhaps eventual savior — the physical book.
Not so the Little Free Library, a grass-roots initiative that is creating micro-libraries all over the country, offering books and only books. In places as diverse as Cambridge, Fall River, Lynnfield, and Framingham, individuals are erecting what look like oversized birdhouses for the purpose of sharing paperback and hardcover books. Passers-by are invited to borrow them on the honor system. They’re mini-libraries with no cards, no fines, no invasive record of one’s reading history — just books, glorious books.
While each collection is managed by the group or individual who establishes the library (called stewards), the Little Free Libraries are not a hodgepodge of old and odd titles that otherwise were destined for the trash. According to the group’s website, “Little Free Libraries have a unique, personal touch, and there is an understanding that real people are sharing their favorite books with their community. These aren’t just any old books; this is a carefully curated collection, and the library itself is a piece of neighborhood art.”
To hear some Cassandras tell it, printed books are the new piping plover, perilously close to extinction without oversight and intervention. But books suffer not from diminishing numbers — indeed, the planet groans from the collected weight of warehoused self-published titles — but from the diminishing number of book readers. And people who don’t read books tend not to congregate in libraries — which is the problem, since that’s where most books hide as if they’re in some sort of secret book protection plan.
Although 99 percent of Americans can read, you can’t tell this by looking around. If our public places offer reading material amid the ever-present television screens, it tends toward frothy celebrity magazines, not books.
What’s needed is book proselytization. If people aren’t going to bookstores and libraries, books must go to the people. Libraries used to enable this, via bookmobiles. But in most places they’ve been deemed too inefficient and costly; the suburbs, at least, have been left to the neighborhood ice-cream truck, a tragic abandonment. A $4 Choco Taco, gone in five minutes, now trumps “The Hunger Games,” which offers a teen a different kind of pleasure, lasting five days.
An obvious question arises: Why can’t public libraries, like private ones, disperse their collection in public spaces? A rack of page-turners at the DMV would help pass the time and perhaps engage someone who hasn’t read a book since high school. Why don’t libraries share their collections in hospital waiting rooms? Expand their offerings to restaurants, bars, veterinary offices, service stations, MBTA stops, anywhere people congregate and wait?
In her book “What I Saw at the Revolution,” Peggy Noonan bemoaned the lowest-common-denominator tendency in politics, but it also applies to the culture. “They forget that we’ve all had at least some education . . . The guy at the gas station read ‘Call of the Wild’ when he was 14, and sometimes thinks about it. Moreover, he has imagination.”
I’d like to believe Noonan is right, and that if books were sprinkled liberally among us — not hidden in our libraries and living rooms — the dormant spirit that thrills to books, not sound bites, might rise again in the nation. In such a nation, thriving libraries, both little and big, might offer books like “Moby-Dick” without the need for “Why Read Moby-Dick?”, in which Nathaniel Philbrick ably makes a case for Melville, while inadvertently shaming the nation that needs a case made.
Yes, it could be too late, the harpoons too deep, in libraries and paper books. But even as the leviathan sinks, the Little Free Libraries exude little bubbles of hope that the extinction of physical books can be forestalled. Hope like a nest full of piping plovers.