“You can be the story of change.” It isn’t surprising that on the last day he was able to speak, before passing away from pancreatic cancer on October 18 at age 62, Todd H. Bol, founder of the Little Free Library organization, issued a call to action to the rest of us. It’s also not surprising that those words were printed on a metal bookmark one can use or attach to a Little Free Library.
By now, you’ve likely read the multitude of stories and seen the vignettes about a simple man who honored his late mother, a teacher, by building a small wooden library from which neighbors and strangers could pick up and share books. In doing so, he created the Little Free Library organization and a movement, as he called it, to break down barriers and bring people closer together—all through the power of books.
Today, there are more than 75,000 Little Free Libraries in more than 88 countries, and even more not yet registered. And the stories behind those libraries are moving and often unforgettable. Those stories range from the Little Free Library Board member honoring her late son, to the staffer honoring his late mother, to the first Little Free Library neighborhood created in East Cleveland, Ohio.
For those of us lucky enough to know Todd, it was not only the adorable, customizable structures of the libraries that made him happy but it was something far bigger: community. For Todd, Little Free Libraries were places that strengthened community ties where they existed and built ties where they were absent. And he loved how comments and challenges sparked new ideas and initiatives.
Not enough Little Free Libraries in high-needs communities? Todd created the Impact Library Grants Fund. Interested in ways to engage a community? Todd formed and encouraged the use of the Action Book Club. Looking for more positive interaction between youth and law enforcement? Todd’s answer was to create the Kids, Community & Cops program. Looking to create better conversations around books? Pass out Whatcha Readin’ buttons.
Todd was a rainmaker. He was a walking reminder of the power of book sharing, and his pockets and briefcase were stuffed with bookmarks, books, pamphlets, and more. As a former national coordinator of NEA’s Read Across America program, I knew what it was like to spread the joy of reading and spur grassroots organizing. But Todd did it in hyperdrive, and we all knew it. There was always a spark, an idea, a vision of a better world.
When, as a board member, I would take Todd around to meet publisher representatives, I knew that his favorite story about the creation of Little Free Library stewards would be shared with them. From his days as a nursing advocate, he recalled going into a crowded room of patients, who had family members sitting nearby. When Todd asked how the physicians could possibly reach and help all of the patients in the room, the physician replied, “Do you see all of those people crowded around each patient? They are the watchers, the helpers, monitoring the patients and helping the physicians. Working together, they will help heal the patient.”
In much the same way, we are now the stewards of Todd’s vision and Todd’s legacy. Though he is no longer with us, he has given us the tools and goals to make the world a better place, especially in these troubled times. We are here to build the communities and reach out to readers. As friends, family, board members, and stewards, we will carry on. When you see a Little Free Library, share a book, adorn it with a white ribbon. And look to adding more Little Free Libraries in your communities. Todd would love that.
To contribute to the Todd H. Bol Vision Fund and read more stories about Todd H. Bol and the Little Free Library, go to littlefreelibrary.org.
Anita Merina is a National Board member of the Little Free Library organization and former coordinator of the National Education Association’s Read Across America.