COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Little Free Libraries: Creating a Sense of Place One Front Yard at a Time

Dec 9, 2015
Jan 8, 2018

Juanita Metzger, co-organizer of Little Libraries of Kitchener Waterloo (LLKW) shows how a small wooden box filled with books and placed near sidewalks, transit stops, daycare centers and schools create a strong sense of place in a neighborhood or city.

‍In Kitchener, Ontario, and in nearby Waterloo and Cambridge, residents have built and installed hundreds of Little Free Libraries in front yards, adding to the thousands that already in exist around the world.

While placemaking may conjure images of a transformed public square that attracts thousands of residents, or a revitalized and once-derelict building to which community members have given new uses, it can also take the form of a series or network of smaller activities (think “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” meets the Power of 10). In the Canadian cities of Kitchener, Waterloo, and Cambridge, these free book exchanges are scattered across three closely connected cities at varying distances - from 1 block to over 30kms apart. Even though they are geographically distributed, they create a unique network of places connected by residents’ desire to share books, connect with neighbors, and promote literacy. Little Libraries have become effective placemaking tools for communities and many serve as hubs or anchors on neighborhood streets.

Inspired by the global movement that began in Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2009, LLKW grew from a similar do-it-yourself spirit and several Kitchener residents interested in promoting literacy and reading while also building community. Here are few key placemaking principles that helped LLKW create a Little Library movement in this region:

  1. Projects are organized and maintained by community members  

When organizers Tom Nagy and Dave Kellar each built and installed their own Little Libraries, they received such great feedback that they knew it was worthwhile to expand the idea beyond their own yards. A Facebook group quickly spread the word, and many people wanted to build a Little Library but felt they didn’t have the right materials, equipment, or skills. That’s when Nagy and Kellar began to organize “community builds,” in which people come together in local parks or a neighbour’s driveway to share tools and guidance and to build their own Little Libraries with the help of a pre-designed kit (designed by Dave Kellar).

Citizen leadership began to grow in other ways too. There was ongoing communication among Little Library stewards in the online group, and Little Library owners proudly shared photos of their newly installed Libraries, while adding their address to  a community-wide map. Others chimed in with questions about special considerations for a Little Library in the cold, snowy southern Ontario winter. When one Little Library was burned down, the community responded immediately by donating books and providing the owners with a new kit for rebuilding. Another little library owner offered to research and share accessibility guidelines so that physical accessibility for wheelchairs, scooters and walkers could be a consideration when installing a little library. When citizens feel their actions can have a direct impact, they are more than willing to take some leadership and contribute to the overall direction of the initiative.

  1.   Create and nurture ongoing partnerships

LLKW really started to take off when Nagy received a $1000 KW Awesome Foundation grant, which made possible a bulk purchase of shared tools and materials. The project’s longest lasting partnership to date is with a local renovation and building company, Menno S. Martin, who has since cut over 200 easy-to-assemble kits based on Kellar's designs and made these available at community builds.

  1. Garner political support by engaging municipal leaders

Very early on, LLKW organizers were diligent about connecting with city staff to ensure that there were no obstacles to encouraging civic participation: they even installed a little library in a city staff member’s front yard. While other cities have sometimes taken a punitive and regulatory approach to "cracking down" on little libraries, both Kitchener and Waterloo have created policies that support the establishment of little libraries in public parks or city property. LLKW organizers used the local website to share by-law and safety information for installing a little library, which reassured city staff that the projects encouraged people to work within existing municipal parameters.

  1.  Support a broader public agenda

Little Libraries promote reading, literacy, and neighborhood engagement, three things that are important for the health, vitality, and quality of life of any community. People say they have been more inclined to pick up a book when walking by a Little Library out of both curiosity and convenience. Some sidewalk librarians say they have met more neighbors since having a little library in their front yard: it becomes an invitation for people connect and bond over books and more. Our Little Libraries signify that we are a community that truly values civic participation, education, and connection.

  1. Animate and  celebrate
‍The author, Juanita Metzger, in front the Little Library in her neighbour's front yard.

I have a Little Library in my front garden, right beside the sidewalk. It is covered in quotations about books and reading that I crowd-sourced from friends. Recently, I hosted a Little Library Take Over where a local artist replaced the books with an original piece of art for one evening. It turned into a magical evening where neighbors and local artists peered into a small white box in the front yard to see the piece created by artist Greg Kirch.

Above the banjo music, I heard someone say, “I’ve visited lots of little libraries in the city, but this has always been my favorite.” This comment led me to realize that beyond the novelty of offering free public books in uniquely decorated wooden boxes, people in our cities have developed a deep attachment to the little libraries in our community and the places in which they are located. To my mind, this is one of the most promising outcomes of placemaking.

Juanita Metzger is a community development and engagement practitioner in Kitchener, Ontario. Her adventures in placemaking and community building span across her professional capacity with the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council and various neighbourhood projects including a new community garden, a good old fashioned pen pal project and of course, Little Libraries of KW. Juanita is also a co-owner of the local renovation company, Menno S. Martin, which supports the Little Libraries project in Kitchener-Waterloo and surrounding area.


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