It's give or take a few books at LFLs

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Margaret Plevak | July 24, 2016

DELAVAN — Think of it as the little library that could.

Little Free Libraries are flourishing in neighborhoods around Delavan and Whitewater, outside churches in Janesville and Edgerton, even surrounded by woods and hiking trails at Rock County parks and Walworth County campgrounds.

The idea of setting up a small, enclosed box of books in a public spot for people to freely take or leave copies got its start in Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2009. Todd Bol built a model of a one-room schoolhouse to honor his mother, a teacher who loved to read. He filled it with books and set it in his front yard, complete with a sign that read, “Free Books.” His neighbors and friends loved it, so he built more libraries and gave them away.

Seeing the project's potential for the common good, Bol and co-founder Rick Brooks started the Little Free Library movement. Both were inspired by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who supported the building of more than 2,500 libraries across the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Lutie Stearns, a librarian who brought traveling collections of books to nearly 1,400 Wisconsin communities between 1895 and 1914.

“We're a growing movement that's starting to pick up everywhere,” said Lynnea Chelstrom, a communications assistant for the Little Free Library nonprofit organization in Hudson. 

As of June, there were more than 40,000 registered Little Free Library book exchanges in all 50 states and more than 70 countries, Chelstrom said.

Some Wisconsin cities are well stocked with LFLs. According to the organization's website, Appleton has 22 registered LFLs, Milwaukee 63, and Madison, 141. But folks in Walworth and Rock counties aren't slackers. Beloit boasts 17 registered LFLs, Janesville has 12 and Whitewater, 7.

Anyone can put up an LFL, and while registering it isn't required, registration will add the library's address to the organization's online international map.

LFLs even have inspired travel plans.

Ginger Buehner, a Madison resident who set up an LFL that's still in use at her former home at N6122 Spruce Drive in Elkhorn, found herself surrounded by LFL fans one day.

“I had women from Illinois who were on a tour of LFLs and driving from library to library,” she said. “I had a great chat with them.”   

“Little Free Libraries are now on some people's to-do list when they visit a new place,” said Stacey Lunsford, director of the Irvin L. Young Memorial Library in Whitewater.

Lunsford has her own LFL, a birthday present built by her father. She understands their popularity — and their benefits. 

 “I love books and I believe strongly in the act of reading as a way to improve your life. Better readers get better grades, which leads to higher education opportunities, which leads to better jobs, which leads to better life outcomes,” Lunsford said. “Little Free Libraries offer another opportunity for people to get a book in their hands. They are there when the public library is not open.

“They encourage relationships with your neighbors and help build a sense of community.”

“It starts a conversation and I've met some nice people,” said Kathleen Renowden of the LFL outside her home at 2916 King St. in Delavan. “It's popular with small children. I put a log to sit on next to the library.”

“We started our LFL because we live on a street that has a lot of people walking by,” said Janesville resident Mike Van Dan. “We already had a sitting area for people to stop and sit. Now people can stop and sit and read a book.”

His LFL was installed near his driveway in 2014 and designed to look a little like his house at 3931 E. Milwaukee St. His wife, Sandy, planted a flowering vine nearby to add a welcoming touch.

“A lot of people use it. We had a grandfather and his granddaughter stopping by almost daily. There were people touring on bicycles with packs who stopped,” Van Dan said. “The library is to the point where it's self-sustaining, it recycles itself. Children's books always go the fastest.”

Greg Peck, the recently retired opinion editor at The Janesville Gazette, lives in a Janesville neighborhood that's not as busy as Van Dan's, but he said his LFL, installed a little over a month ago, attracts users.

“As my wife says, we don't get a lot of pedestrian traffic on our quiet street, but that, I think, is part of the charm,” Peck said. “It's inviting to stop and take time to consider what you might find interesting reading.”

Area organizations also have started to recognize the attraction of LFLs. There's one outside the public library at 431 Center St. in Whitewater and one at the Whitewater Lake campground. LFLs were installed in 2012 by volunteer groups at Beckman Mill Park in Newark Township and Carver Roehl Park in Clinton.

“Park users love them, especially folks with children,” said David Hoffman, community coordinator of Rock County Parks. “It's an easy way to pick up a book and enjoy our parks at the same time.”

There is an LFL at Milton Middle School, 20 E. Madison Ave. in Milton, and one near Beloit College. An LFL located at the Delavan-Darien School District's administration center at 324 Beloit St. in Delavan was donated by the class of 2013 and made by students in a woodworking class.

Churches with LFLs include La Grange United Methodist Church, N8548 County Highway H in the town of La Grange, and Asbury United Methodist Church at 1810 Kellogg Ave. in Janesville.

Annette Klingaman, a retired administrator at Fulton Church, 9209 N. Fulton St. near Edgerton, maintains the church's LFL, which was given to the congregation by another church in Cambridge. She's stocked the shelf with everything from “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” to Christian romances and cookbooks.

“The congregation is good about bringing things in. We don't even have to put requests for books in the bulletin,” Klingaman said. “The neat thing is I hear folks ask how 'our' library is doing and 'Do (you) need more books?'”

Deborah Blackwell, the executive director and founder of Studio 84, a nonprofit art studio at 121 W. Center St. in Whitewater, got the community involved in creating an LFL.

Members of a local Girl Scout Troop built and decorated the LFL.

“We do tours of the studio space with the English language group from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and foreign exchange students are often amazed at this concept of the Little Free Library,” Blackwell said. “We hope that they take the idea home to their countries with them.”

The Little Free Library organization offers ready-made LFLs for purchase, but many people choose to build their own. The results are often creative, judging by pages of LFLs on sites like Pinterest.

Chelstrom said the Little Free Library organization has its own wall honoring libraries of distinction, including one of her favorite LFLs in Odessa, Texas, built to look like the “Star Wars” robot R2D2.

David Kotwitz has seen people taking selfies next to the LFL that looks like a pirate's chest at his home at 513 Blaine St. in Edgerton — although its shape did puzzle his brother-in-law.

“(He) asked me why I put a suggestion box up in front of my house when he first saw it,” Kotwitz said. “We still laugh about that.”

Kotwitz is also the steward of a second LFL on the grounds of the Sterling North Society Museum at 409 Rollin St. in Edgerton. North was the Wisconsin author of “Rascal” and dozens of award-winning books.

“Initially I stocked the North Library with North books, but they are all gone,” Kotwitz said.

“I keep a variety of books in the library at my home,” he said. “I was getting ready to fill the books one day recently and a regular came along with her four boys on bikes. I had been saving a bedtime story book for them and they were thrilled when I gave it to them.”

But whether it's children's books or the latest best-sellers, Lunsford sees LFLs thriving.

“The idea of sharing books touches people's emotions because people have strong feelings about their favorite books. Sharing stories is one of the oldest community activities in existence, so it speaks to one of our core human traits,” she said. “Plus it's easy and it's fun and it's good for you. Rarely do you get the whole trifecta!”

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