Little Free Library—which moved its headquarters from Hudson, Wis., to St. Paul, Minn., in July—continues to fulfill its mission of providing access to books to underserved communities. Its latest initiative, the Indigenous Library Program, which launches this spring, will provide book-sharing boxes for installation on tribal lands, as well as in other Indigenous communities throughout the U.S. and in Canada.
The LFL boxes will be shipped at no cost to volunteer stewards and come with two starter sets of books. One set will include 25 books written and/or illustrated by BIPOC authors and artists, and the other set will feature 25 books with content centering Indigenous people and communities. Stewards subsequently will be responsible for keeping the boxes stocked with books.
The Indigenous Library Program is an outgrowth of LFL’s Native Library Initiative, which was part of its Impact Library Program. The latter provides library boxes and starter sets at no cost to volunteer stewards in communities in the U.S. and Canada with limited or no access to books. To date, more than 1,800 boxes have been issued under LFL’s Impact Library Program, and the starter sets feature more children’s books than typical LFL starter sets.
Noting the lack of access to books on tribal lands, as well as the scarcity of public libraries there, LFL stated in a release that the goal of the Indigenous Library Program is to, in partnership with Native leaders and community members, “strengthen community, inspire readers, expand easy book access, support positive literacy outcomes, and make little free libraries available in high-need locations serving Indigenous peoples.”
Until recently, the Indigenous Library Program had been directed by Valarie Kingsland, who also managed the Impact Library Program, but Kingsland left LFL for another position after we spoke with her for this piece. (LFL executives said the scope of the Indigenous program will remain unchanged.) The new initiative also has an advisory group comprising half a dozen educators, librarians, and authors who have previous experience as LFL stewards. Most of the advisory group’s members are Indigenous, and all have long served Indigenous communities in some capacity. LFL intends to expand the advisory group by adding Canadian, Hawaiian, and Alaskan representatives.
“The Native Library Initiative in the Impact Library Program really informed all our decision making with the Indigenous Library Program,” noted Kingsland, a librarian who is an enrolled member of Alaska’s Native Village Unalakleet. “I was hired to develop that into a culturally responsive program. There’s more intentionality and Indigenous community involvement. It’s important to me, as I am Indigenous myself, that it not just be paying lip service.”
LFL is committed to recognizing and respecting the unique needs of various Indigenous communities, Kingsland said, noting that, for example, the color orange has a special significance to Indigenous Canadians and may not be appropriate for an LFL box. “We’re not going in with the assumption that we know what they need,” Kingsland said. “I think that’s the mistake a lot of others have made—people from outside Indigenous communities assume and say, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ rather than ask, ‘What do you need?’ So we have a lot more options in what the Indigenous Library Program is, compared to the Impact Library Program.”
Valerie Janis, a technician at the Oglala Lakota College Woksape Tipi Library in Kyle, S.Dak., and a member of the Indigenous Library Program’s advisory group, became a steward in 2021 of 11 LFL boxes on the Pine Ridge Reservation. “The closest bookstore, depending where you are on the reservation, is an hour, an hour and a half away,” Janis said. “And we are the only library. There’s not a lot of access to books, especially new books. We’ve created relationships with our donors, and we’ve gotten brand-new books. We’ve given away close to 2,500 books. It gives equal-opportunity access to resources the recipients wouldn’t normally have.”
People and organizations living in or serving Indigenous communities may apply to receive LFL boxes and started kits, along with an LFL charter sign in English, English and Spanish, English and French, or with customized wording in an Indigenous language. The kit also includes an Indigenous Library Program medallion.
“We don’t require that the applicant be Indigenous,” Kingsland said. “That’s a difficult thing to say—that somebody has to be Indigenous in order to serve an Indigenous community. We want to recognize that the people who really do have a heart for an Indigenous community come from all kinds of backgrounds.”