It has been a year of joy mixed with sorrow for Little Free Library. The Wisconsin nonprofit organization behind the iconic, seemingly ubiquitous containers mounted on posts and filled with books for the taking is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month while still mourning the loss of founder and executive director Todd Bol. Bol, 62, died last October, just weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
To mark its May 17 birthday, LFL sponsored a virtual international event called the Big Share. Participants were invited to visit a Little Free Library between May 17 and 19, deposit a book, and post a photo on social media with the #LFL10 hashtag to enter a drawing for a gift card to LFL’s online store. By the end of the weekend, there were 730 photos posted on Instagram; hundreds more were posted on Facebook and Twitter.
LFL also marked its 10th birthday by announcing the 10 winners of the inaugural Todd H. Bol Award for Outstanding Achievement, given to individuals who maintain Little Free Libraries and who best exemplify LFL’s mission of fostering community through books. The winners, whom LFL calls stewards, include nine adults (five of whom are people of color) and one teenager. They maintain microlibraries abroad in Rome and Khartoum and domestically in El Monte, Calif.; El Paso, Tex.; Lake Worth, Fla.; New Orleans, La.; Paterson, N.J.; and Spring Valley and Medford, Wis., and on a Navajo reservation in Window Rock, Ariz.—the Navajo Nation’s first Little Free Library.
“The winners highlight the diversity of the work the stewards are doing,” noted Margret Aldrich, LFL’s media and programming manager and the author of The Little Free Library Book, which was published in 2015 by Coffee House Press. “They’re all doing amazing things.”
In September, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Clarion Books imprint will publish Little Libraries, Big Heroes by Miranda Paul, illustrated by John Parra—a children’s picture book that begins with the story of how, in spring 2009, Bol constructed the first Little Free Library, a wooden replica of a one-room schoolhouse, to honor his late mother, a teacher. He mounted it on a post, filled it with books, and placed it in front of his house in Hudson, Wis., with a sign attached urging passersby to take a book or leave a book. It is the same model LFL follows today.
“It’s an alternative way to get really good books into people’s hands,” Bol told PW in 2011 as the concept started to snowball. With its popularity growing, LFL became a nonprofit organization in 2012, at which point there were about 5,000 Little Free Libraries in all 50 states and in 40 countries abroad.
As LFL marks its 10th anniversary, there are more than 80,000 registered Little Free Libraries in 91 countries, which have shared a total of at least 120 million books. The organization, which has 10 employees, reported close to $3 million in revenue in 2018 and is in the midst of conducting a national search for a new executive director.
In addition to the registered libraries, which can be seen on LFL’s interactive global map, there are an unknown number of mounted boxes containing books that are not registered, LFL-branded structures but are obviously modeled on them. LFL encourages this, too, as demonstrated by the fact that Bol wrote the foreword to Little Free Libraries and Tiny Sheds: 12 Miniature Structures You Can Build by Philip Schmidt (published by Cool Springs in March).
The organization is best known for its book-exchange containers, but that’s not all it does. For years, LFL has spearheaded literacy initiatives such as its Action Book Club, whose members read books together and then perform community service projects. LFL also promotes literacy by sponsoring projects and programs in collaboration with businesses and organizations. Among the partners it has worked with are Books for Africa, Coffee House Press, the New York Times Learning Network, and Penguin Random House.
“It’s incredible that a simple thing—a box of books and a post—has really struck a chord in so many places,” Aldrich said. “No wonder people call Todd Bol the Johnny Appleseed of books: he planted seeds of literacy all over the world.”