A Conversation with Rick Brooks

The League talks with a co-founder of Little Free Library, LTD about the origins of the idea and how it grew into an international movement


Rick Brooks, Little Free Library Co-founder, visiting one of the New York City libraries

Little Free Library/NYC is a project, jointly directed by The Architectural League of New York and PEN World Voices Festival, that pairs local architects and Lower Manhattan community organizations to place small book shelters in neighborhoods. The initiative is part of the global Little Free Library movement and is realized in collaboration with Little Free Library, LTD.

In early 2013, ten teams of architects and designers were selected in a juried RFQ process. Each was asked to design, build, and install a Little Free Library in collaboration with a host community organization. The libraries were installed during the IDEAS CITY Festival in May 2013, for which the League was a partner organization, and will be in use through September 1, 2013, at which point they will be evaluated to determine their longevity into the fall. To download a map of the sites, click here.

On May 4, 2013, as the New York libraries were being installed at their locations across the Lower East Side, Ian Veidenheimer, the League’s Program Associate, and Alexandra Hay, a program intern, discussed the Little Free Library movement with its co-founder, Rick Brooks. Below is an edited version of that conversation. 

Alexandra Hay: What initially sparked the Little Free Library idea? How did it evolve into an international movement?

Rick Brooks: I met Todd Bol, my friend and business partner, at a seminar I was running on promoting vibrant local economies in Hudson, Wisconsin. I went to visit him and saw this little model of a one-room red schoolhouse he had built and filled with books. It was dedicated to the memory of his mother, who had died a couple of years before. She was a teacher.

His neighbors and friends were very impressed and asked if he would build them little book houses as well. He had no notion that they would become sharing libraries, never mind part of an international movement. But he and I started talking about all this interest in these little book shelters and realized they were the beginning of an idea that could carry a lot of weight. Todd and I are both social entrepreneurs in a way. I have been teaching for most of my life, working in youth and community development, health promotion, and social marketing.

We started off with a very basic premise: “Leave a book, take a book, return a book.” At first we named them “Habitats for the Humanities,” which was much too clever; it never caught on. We were inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s idea of making books and reading available to everyone. He apparently subsidized 2,509 libraries worldwide. That gave us a goal to reach for. We hit 2,510 Little Free Libraries in 2012.

“Little Free Library” is a concept for place as well as a container for tangible literature.

Ian Veidenheimer: Carnegie’s interest in libraries was tied to a strong social initiative. What does “Little Free Library” mean to you?

Brooks: The mission is to promote a sense of community, reading for children, literacy for adults, and libraries around the world. We’ve learned that a sense of community trumps everything; people are really yearning for a way to identify with something positive that they feel good about. I’m a cultural anthropologist and a teacher, and in all of my life, I’ve never seen people respond so positively to an idea. One, and maybe the most important, reason is that the books and libraries themselves are providing gathering places and motivations for people to get to know other people. A very common response we hear is, “I’ve met more people since our little library came here than I’ve met in 10 or 20 years.” That’s incredibly powerful.

Veidenheimer: How much diversity in form and placement of the libraries have you seen, and how does the architecture and location of the libraries affect how they are used or received?

Brooks: Ultimately the libraries need to be more than enclosures for books. They are places that people come to for books and shared experiences. “Little Free Library” is a concept for place as well as a container for tangible literature. Some libraries are inside, in the vestibules of coffee shops, for example. There’s a Starbucks that has a library, where in the first month they went through 1,000 books. The employees there say that now, three years after it was installed, 20-30% of their customers check the library every time they come in. So what is the function of these collections of books that people want to share? It brings people together for a sense of community and a place where they can talk about things.

Hay: Were you surprised by how quickly the idea spread and by the geographic reach of the project?

Brooks: We had always hoped and worked very hard for that. We get a great deal of traffic on our website, and we get inquires about the project every day. But what’s so wonderful is that the movement is truly grassroots. We did not spend a penny on advertising; it was all word of mouth and proxy for word of mouth, namely through Facebook, through stories people tell each other, and their families, or because they saw a library in one town and then went home and built one. We have build days where we offer little library kits containing all the pre-painted parts and tools. Anybody can come and in an hour and a half they can build their own personalized library. Those have been very successful at spreading the idea. But the map really tells the story on its own. Once the project was underway, both Todd and I hoped it would have international ramifications. The fact that we’re in more than 49 countries now is just mind-blowing and it’s absolutely wonderful.

The idea promotes something essential, a kind of social glue.

Hay: How do the New York City Little Free Libraries align with your original conceptions of the project? Do you think they need different features to respond to an urban environment?

Brooks: I think it’s fantastic that the designs are being reimagined, still based on the existing tradition but now taking on all kinds of shapes and sizes. In terms of specific features, I don’t know what they might be, but I expect they will emerge to meet the needs, interests, fascinations, habits, and values of the people who use and host them. A little library is not something proscriptive, not something a government or a large corporation can turn around and provide for everybody. They would not have the same meaning as the idiosyncratic and genuine grassroots designs built from the heart, and filled with books that have the ability to really connect people. I think this is very New York. This is what New York’s about–there will be some very creative ones, and there will be not very creative ones. One of the qualities that people seem to love about them is their serendipity. You never know what you’re going to find there. So it is great that the libraries are variable as well.

Veidenheimer: Speaking of government, do you see these structures and services–built by people, citizens, non-government workers–as some form of activism that is about working outside of the government, or are they complementary to more traditionally public services?

Brooks: They are complementary. We have a much more collaborative ethic rather than a confrontational one. We completely acknowledge that Little Free Libraries are not a substitute for public libraries. Our bumper sticker says, “Libraries big and small, we love them all.” Some governments have really bought into the idea and are incorporating them into parks, libraries, school districts, recycling programs, you name it. Creative governments see this as a resource for getting people involved. Without a political agenda, it promotes something essential, a kind of social glue.