Little Libraries, Free at Last?
Good news for fans of literacy and opponents of restrictive zoning codes
In October 2020, Tina Musich erected a small wooden box with a slanted roof on a post in her front yard in Oradell, New Jersey. The box's glass-faced door revealed a pile of books that people were free to take, return, and trade.
Her Little Free Library soon proved a hit with the neighborhood. Adults and children alike would grab or drop off books every day. Musich would personally get compliments about the library at least once a week.
"Book drops and little free libraries allow communities to come together and share a love of reading while practicing safe social distancing in these pandemic times," she wrote online. "They teach our children about sharing and community. With the library closed for browsing for over a year, the experience of picking out a book has been lost."
Local code enforcement officials were less pleased. Citing an anonymous complaint, they ordered Musich to take it down in March 2021. They said the library was tall enough to be considered an accessory structure under the borough's zoning code. That meant Musich needed a permit to build it, which she did not have.
At the next borough council meeting, Musich was told she could either reduce the height of the library to avoid the permitting requirement or go through the lengthy process of obtaining a zoning variance. Neither option was attractive. Musich worried that a library short enough to avoid the need for a permit would force elderly patrons to stoop. Getting a permit just to keep her library seemed excessive.
Musich dutifully took down the library. But she also started a petition to get the zoning code changed. Within a few days, NorthJersey.com reported, the town's mayor and borough president reached out to Musich to say they supported amending the zoning code to accommodate amateur librarians like her.
Musich's story is fairly typical of the disputes that periodically spring up over Little Free Libraries. Bibliophiles across the country have rushed to erect them in the decade since they first appeared. Just as quickly, busybodies and bureaucrats have demanded they be taken down.
Occasionally, the opposition is driven by the libraries' content or symbolism. But it usually stems from fussy zoning codes that are hostile to new ideas, or to new spaces where those ideas can take concrete form.
But Little Free Libraries are both popular and innocuous, and that makes them tough to crack down on. Confronted with the prospect of ordering their removal, many local governments have instead changed their laws so the little libraries can stay.
Little Free Libraries got their start in 2009, when Hudson, Wisconsin, resident Todd Bol built one in the shape of a one-room schoolhouse to honor his late mother, a schoolteacher. The neighbors liked it, so he started building more of them and giving them away.
By the next year, one had been erected in Madison, Wisconsin. In 2011, the number of Little Free Libraries had grown to 400. In 2012, there were thousands across the United States.
"It's a concept that struck a chord," says Margret Aldrich, director of communications at Little Free Library, a nonprofit set up in 2012 to promote these book-sharing boxes. "I think it's been so universal because people can share their love of reading and they can connect with their neighbors."
According to Little Free Library's count, there are more than 125,000 individual book exchanges around the world in 112 countries and on all seven continents. One made it to the South Pole in 2020.
Public brick-and-mortar libraries, especially those in schools, can't seem to escape political controversy over what books they should or shouldn't carry. The private, decentralized network of Little Free Libraries has avoided these toxic battles—mostly.
In 2016, some members of the Dallas City Council worried these boxes would be used to distribute pornography to children. But they ultimately decided against imposing any specific rules on the structures.
A few years ago in Washington, D.C., an anonymous malcontent left a long missive on a Little Free Library in the city's Mount Pleasant neighborhood, complaining that the structures "introduce a host of problems including stealing patronage from existing public library branches, the corporatization of literary circulation, and helping to gentrify urban neighborhoods." The note mostly produced eye rolls. The head of D.C.'s public library system let it be known that he was fine with the competition.
A Structural Problem
More typically, objections to Little Free Libraries are based on the physical forms they take. When Ricky and Teresa Edgerton put one outside their home in Shreveport, Louisiana, they didn't think they were doing anything wrong. But in January 2015, zoning officials slapped a notice on their book exchange saying it had to cease operation.
The reason was twofold. Zoning administrators said the library was akin to a commercial use, which was forbidden by the exclusively residential zoning of the Edgertons' property. They also said accessory structures were allowed only in rear and side yards. The Edgertons had put their "rental box," as the zoning officials described it, in front of their house.
The fact that a single three-feet-by-three-feet box of books can be illegal in two different ways illustrates the uphill battle homeowners can face when trying to set up their own libraries. The reams of rules governing what can go where in America's single-family neighborhoods set endless traps for unwary librarians.
When 9-year-old Spencer Collins put up a library outside his house in Leawood, Kansas, in 2014, city officials informed him that free-standing accessory structures were banned unless expressly permitted. In Los Angeles the following year, code enforcement caused some drama when officials told actor Peter Cook that the library he had installed in the nature strip between the sidewalk and street in front of his house (technically public property) was an illegal obstruction that would have to go.
These libraries might have escaped the notice of city hall. But in every case, code compliance officers blamed their crackdowns on the anonymous complaint systems that allow grumpy residents to snitch on their neighbors in comfortable, consequence-free secrecy.
Even when municipal authorities choose to look the other way, America's private governments are ready to step in. More often than not, Aldrich says, it's homeowner association bylaws, not zoning codes, that cause legal problems for new libraries.
The obstacles that Little Free Libraries run into are often ridiculous. The good news is that they usually manage to overcome them.
Collins' case quickly became a media sensation, probably because it involved a 9-year-old boy. According to Aldrich, Collins received letters of support from famous authors like Lemony Snicket and even from a Holocaust survivor, who said Leawood officials' behavior reminded her of book-burning Nazis. The city government soon buckled under the pressure and legalized Little Free Libraries.
In 2015, the Shreveport City Council amended its laws to let property owners, within reason, set up "outdoor book exchange boxes" in the front yards of their homes. Los Angeles, on the other hand, declined to deregulate. Cook told the Los Angeles Times he'd keep his library up anyway, in spite of "the blinded Cyclops of L.A. city—wildly swinging its cudgel to destroy something that has made the city and this neighborhood a better place."
The frequency of these incidents seems to be declining. During the last few years, Aldrich says, the number of people contacting her organization about code compliance problems has dropped markedly. "I think that's really to do with people being more aware…of the common good of a Little Free Library and what [it] can do for community building," she says.
The Little Free Library organization tries to mitigate these zoning issues. Its website offers model code amendments for local governments that might want to legalize these structures but don't know how.
The group also supplies people with some ready-made First Amendment arguments. If a city allows bird baths and decorative mail boxes but not book exchanges, for instance, that could be considered an attempt to suppress speech.
It would be easier to name the types of human activity that zoning laws don't restrict than to list all those they regulate. Even the most harmless activities can run afoul of these codes. But unlike most things tripped up by zoning regulations, Little Free Libraries have an impressive record of besting the rules imposed on them. As the country slowly rethinks the wisdom of laws restricting density and commercial activity in staid residential neighborhoods, Little Free Libraries may be leading the way.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Little Libraries, Free at Last?".