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At Little Free Libraries across Boston and beyond, there’s more than just books on offer

The free library movement has cultivated a sense of community and mission

The Little Schoolhouse Library in front of the house on 48 Fairbanks St., Brighton.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A small, blue box packed with books sits perched on the railing of Charlestown’s Harvest on Vine food pantry. The titles in this miniature library cycle in and out on a daily basis, but the structure itself is always kept full to serve the community.

Branded with “take a book, leave a book” signage, this particular box belongs to a network of Little Free Libraries stewarded by the Friends of the Charlestown Branch of the Boston Public Library — a project they started at the onset of the pandemic to keep the community together and restore a sense of normalcy at a time when all public programming was halted.

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“The Little Free Library movement really spoke to us because it covered a lot of bases all at once,” Mary Curtin, one of the stewards of the network, said. “We decided on places that are still heavily used. And what cannot stop, in spite of [the pandemic], are food pantries.”

The Friends also maintain a library at 255 Medford St., across from Charlestown High School, and are lobbying for a third. These networks, found all over Boston and beyond, speak to the growing popularity of LFLs, which saw an exponential increase in registered libraries in 2020.

This library can be found right around the corner from 49 Vine St. behind the block of buildings that house the NEW Health Charlestown community center.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Greater Boston area is home to 317 libraries of the 1,873 registered in Massachusetts, according to Margret Aldrich, director of communication at Little Free Library, a nonprofit organization based in St. Paul, Minn. Aldrich, who wrote a book on the history of the LFL movement in 2015, noted that, worldwide, the organization only had 25,000 registered libraries nearly a decade ago, in comparison to the 185,000 libraries in 2024.

Boston, Aldrich noted, was one of the first cities to launch the organization’s Read In Color program, which brings diverse authors and books that provide perspective on social justice, racism, and celebrate BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized voices to designated libraries. “The goal [of that] is really to build understanding and inclusion through reading diverse books written by diverse authors.”

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Some stewards oversee multiple libraries within their cities, like Evelyn Gayhart and her mother, Eleanor, who currently own five in Everett. Evelyn, now a junior in high school, installed her first library in 2018 as a Silver Award Project for her Girl Scout troop. She spent most of the next year seeking city approval and building the library from scratch with her grandfather. In 2021, she was able to install it across from Wehner Park.

After seeing the success of the first library, Evelyn, with Eleanor’s assistance, began conceptualizing the network and applied for funding from the Everett Citizens Foundation. She was approved in November of 2022 and added four more libraries: one inside The Well Coffeehouse, the next outside of the Everett Community Health and Wellness Center, another at the Lafayette School, and the fourth, at the Arts for Everett Center, coming this spring.

The Little Free Library organization has taken notice of her efforts, and, as a part of their Impact Library Program, awarded her with a free structure, which is slated to be installed inside the Edward G. Connolly Center on Feb. 6.

“As she saw people’s response of all different ages and how excited they were, she thought of other places that were important to her that the [libraries] should be,” Eleanor said. “She likes the idea that when she’s somewhere that she’s had good experiences, people who are also there could benefit from [these libraries].”

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Individualized libraries in the surrounding Boston area, born in part out of the pandemic, allow different neighborhoods to curate a selection of books they want to see. Summer Cosgrove of Quincy lives near Wollaston Beach, and noticed her neighbors consistently stocking the library with “beach reads.”

“I don’t really police it in any way. One time I saw a title last year that might have been a bit politically extreme and I remember pulling it out, but that’s the only time I’ve ever done that,” she said, noting that other books in the library are written in different languages to accommodate the demographics of the neighborhood. “It’s great because I think it reflects the nature of the neighborhood, it reflects the community.”

An interior view of a library with books at 29 Bayfield Road South, Quincy.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Brighton resident Julia Schroeder described a similar sense of community curation among those who use the library; the only books she has intentionally taken out are “religious pamphlets.”

“I really don’t put much of anything in there,” she said. “[Banned] books have cycled through there and I’m happy to see them. I learned a lot about libraries and other places from being part of a Facebook group just for stewards. A lot of people will post certain books that have come into their library, and will ask ‘would you leave this in here?’”

Facebook groups like Schroeder’s offer stewards support in moments of need. Elizabeth Covino of Andover remembered a woman in North Andover who couldn’t stock her library after returning home from a hospitalization and was immobile.

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“I gathered a bunch of books, loaded her library, and then left [the rest] on her porch at her house so she had some overflow books,” Covino said. “It’s a caring community.”

And when Covino’s own library was set on fire in July 2023, burning through the middle shelf and scorching every book inside, her community came to her aid. She waited a few weeks to rebuild and restock, she said, out of fear of another vandalism incident occurring. But now, book donations from neighbors and Buy Nothing Facebook groups help her keep the library full.

“I’ve always loved reading and I love to share my joy of reading,” she said, noting that the libraries are low maintenance once they are built and installed. “I feel like you can really make a difference.”


Adri Pray can be reached at adri.pray@globe.com. Follow her @adriprayy.