We all remember the feeling of sitting down criss-cross applesauce in some small corner of a room with a book in our small hands. The feeling of the crisp pages between our fingers and the images flashing through our heads.
The Madison Reading Project’s Little Free Libraries are built with wood and nails, but they are also built with a love of reading and a desire to make books accessible to all.
“We just hope every child can have a good memory of just sitting and getting lost with a book,” Melissa Hornung, current Little Free Libraries program assistant, said.
Invented in 2009 by Todd H. Bol as a memorial to his late mother, Little Free Libraries flourished and now cover all 50 states as well as 91 countries.
In Madison, the nonprofit group Madison Reading Project (MRP) noticed some pre-existing boxes needed a little extra love and wanted to build more little libraries in their community.
MRP works with schools, community centers, boys and girls clubs and other community partners to support Little Free Libraries. With their help, MRP has grown the number of libraries they own or sponsor to 30 locations in the Madison area.
Hornung started out as a volunteer for MRP about five years ago. With great love for the company, she was excited to have a more involved role in the creation and maintenance of the Little Free Libraries.
She has an inside look into the process of getting a library box added to an area.
“If an organization that serves youth — birth through 18 — is interested, they can reach out to us through our website,” Hornung said. “Sometimes it comes up in a conversation with a community partner, a volunteer or somebody who's donating something to us and knows of a great site.”
Certain locations take precedence over others. The first priority is to have library boxes where kids are, such as near schools or parks. Once a location is chosen, the next step is to contact the correct people and confirm if digging in that area is allowed and safe. When given the go-ahead, MRP and their partner choose a day between late spring and late fall to avoid digging in the frozen Wisconsin winter soil.
“The install takes a little less than an hour, and you dig a post hole to a depth of between two-and-a-half and three feet, and then put a post in, level it and then attach the box onto the post,” Hornung explained. “Then, fill it with books — the fun stuff!”
Volunteers at MRP then waterproof the boxes, a step necessary in the unpredictable Wisconsin weather, and a new Little Free Library is born.
MRP has a partnership with Madison Area Builders Association and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County through their Mackenzie Regional Workforce Center. Through this partnership, adults and kids come together to construct library boxes and learn about work in skilled trades.
Books in the Little Free Libraries are rotated out constantly. MRP supplies new books, or community members bring some of their own to add for new readers to enjoy.
“The greatest advantage is providing choice to kids, choice and access to books. Choice is so important to kids, being able to choose a high-quality book, a diverse book, a book that represents you,” Hornung said. “Our goal is to stock them with high-quality, high-interest books that kids will love to read.”
The Little Free Library program aims to promote literacy for kids of all ages, with a deep understanding of how book access affects learning outcomes.
Children from impoverished households have access to fewer books and other reading materials than their more financially stable peers, according to Scholastic. With less access to books, children miss out on reading being a pleasurable meaning-making experience — an experience that carries enormous value and usefulness.
“The reading rich get richer and the reading poor miss out on more academic growth with every passing year; children are caught in a vicious cycle of intellectual deprivation,” Scholastic researchers wrote.
Little Free Libraries breaks down that barrier by providing high-quality books for free to all kids across neighborhoods. Even during the pandemic, Little Free Libraries was a way to safely get books into kids' hands.
MRP understands the importance of reading at all ages, and the little libraries help enliven this idea.
“Reading is one of the best ways we can learn about the world around us, and it feeds our imagination, helps to improve our communication skills,” Hornung said. “I like how it brings the community together.”
Hornung shared some stories of moments where different community members were touched by the Little Free Libraries.
While picking up supplies for a library installation, a worker at a local Home Depot was so intrigued by the project he volunteered to help with future installments and repairs.
In another case, while getting permission to dig from Diggers Hotline, a free service that is used before any kind of digging to make sure no damage is done to underground lines, a worker shared that he was an English major in college and would “send this request right away!”
These instances are just a few examples of how Little Free Libraries can benefit people of all ages and promote community involvement and outreach, Hornung said. Parents and kids alike love the Little Free Libraries and what they stand for.
“I was just doing one today and a parent walked by and said she was so excited for her daughter to come home from school and be able to pick out a book because she loves reading,” Hornung said.
MRP and their Little Free Libraries aim to connect kids with books as well as communities, Hornung said. They provide kids with access to a wide variety of books and offer adults opportunities to volunteer, enabling them to share their life-long love for reading, all free of charge.
“We just hope that every child can have a good memory of just sitting and getting lost with a good book,” Hornung said.