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Alternative Libraries: Creative Ways to Share Books

March 9, 2012 Books, Reading 7 Comments

By Necee Regis

As a kid, I loved to read. Still do. The problem for my eight-year old self was that the public library was so far away. Located at the opposite end of town, about three miles door-to-door, it wasn’t easy for me to get there with my mom, a single parent who never learned how to drive.

Lucky for me, the library sponsored a Bookmobile, a rolling library located—if my memory is correct—in a cross between an Airstream trailer and a bus. It arrived once a week, parking in the supermarket lot behind our apartment building, and I still remember the thrill of climbing on board and choosing my reading materials for the week. No matter that my choices were limited to the meager capacity of its shelves. The Bookmobile expanded my world.

New and inventive ways to share books, promote literacy, and create community are appearing all over the place: in public phone booths, in front of private homes, in underused urban lots, city parks, and farmers’ markets. Here’s a tour of some pretty spectacular ways to find and share books. Keep your eyes open: an alternative library might be coming to a corner near you.

Repurposed Phone Booths: NYC

Touted on Architizer as “New York’s alternative public library,” this snazzy invention is the brainchild of architect John Locke who is repurposing phone booths into communal libraries as part of his  “Department of Urban Betterment” interventionist project.  Constructed of machine-cut and painted plywood, the shelves are designed to hang securely without fasteners, while allowing phone to be used. This library allows visitors to give, borrow, exchange or take books at will.

Repurposed Phone Booths: UK

After observing a rarely used and often vandalized phone booth in Kingston, England, media consultant James Econs created the “Phoneboox” by installing plywood shelves in the interior space and filling them with some of his old books.

Along the edges of the shelves, Econs wrote: “You are welcome to take me… but please make sure to replace me!!” As reported on Designboom, “the rest of the community quickly became involved in adding their own books to the collection and borrowing and swapping others in and out.”

The Uni: A Portable Reading Room for Public Space

Designed to share books, improve public spaces, and “showcase the art of learning,” the Uni is an open-air reading room project developed by the team at Street Lab of New York and Boston. A modular system of 144 open-faced cubes (built by students at MIT), it can be adapted to any urban space. Not a lending library, the Uni is meant to bring books and learning experiences to parts of New York City that might otherwise be lacking. Working with a team of volunteer librarians, the Uni collection consists of donated new and gently-used books.

Volunteers with expertise and passion in a particular field have the opportunity to “curate” the books in one of the 16” cubes. As stated on Uni’s website: “Curated collections convey a sense of passion and depth too often missing from content chosen for public space. They also serve to include different ‘voices’ in the collection, reflecting the communities where the Uni operates.”

The Little Free Library

Two years ago in Hudson Wisconsin, a guy named Todd Bol built a miniature model of a library, filled it with books, and placed it outside his home. He did this to honor his mom, a teacher and book lover who had passed away. One thing let to another, and now his simple idea has spread to states across the U.S., and hundreds of little free libraries.

Encouraging people to take a book, or leave a book or a note, Bol hopes to fulfill his mission of promoting a love of reading and literacy through a worldwide network of free book exchanges. Anyone can do it! The website includes a link on how to build a little library of your own.


Know of any other alternative libraries in your community? Are you ready to build your own little library?

[UPDATE] *Since the original publication of  this post on Beyond The Margins, NBC Nightly News has produced a feature about the Little Libraries. You can see it here.



Currently there are "7 comments" on this Article:

  1. Love it.

    Our town dump/recycling center has a book swap: As you’re driving out, the backside of a warehouse has a massive outdoors wall of built-in shelves protected all seasons under a large overhang like a vestibule.

    Drop off, pick up, browse. On the way out of the dump, I always pull over and let my kids browse. Before we go on long road trips, we stop off to stock up.

    Thanks for the visual romp!

    PS I think in my retirement I’m going to get me an Airstream bookmobile.

  2. Dell Smith Dell Smith says:

    I think I am ready to build my own little library. Very cool stuff, and it makes so much sense. Thanks for uncovering these alternative libraries, Necee!

  3. Javed says:

    This is such an amazing post Necee! I am totally inspired to start something like that in Somerville

  4. Wow – I love this story! It reminded me of my own effort, at the age of 7 or so, to create a free children’s library at my house. A voracious reader, the town library was my favorite place to be. Wanting to share my love of books and reading with other children, I taped a sign on our front porch door (written in crayon, if I recall correctly) inviting kids in to use my lending library. I put random numbers on the inside cover of each book – my attempt at a Dewey Decimal System – and waited with breathless anticipation for the stream of kids I was sure would show up wanting to borrow books. What I failed to account for was the fact that we were the last house in on a dead-end road! Needless to say, not one child came to use it. So, while my children’s library was a colossal failure and I was totally crestfallen, it didn’t diminish my love of public libraries, which remains strong to this day. Vive les bibliothèques!

  5. Necee Regis Necee says:

    Thanks for the enthusiasm for this piece. I hope that all of you follow through and set up little libraries of your own. If you do…let me know!

    And Dyan–my imagination is spinning with thoughts of your childhood lending library. I’m happy your disappointment didn’t dissuade you from loving books and libraries. My friend and I once turned an empty washing machine box into a jukebox. We wrote the names of songs on the front and cut a slot to deposit a dime. One of us climbed inside–ready to sing–while the other stood outside and tried to corral some listeners. We made 0 cents but had tons of fun.

    • Necee – your story about your homemade jukebox had me laughing out loud! It’s amazing how creative kids can be with a simple cardboard box. Hope springs eternal!

      And, yes – despite my disappointment over my failed children’s library, I always knew in my heart that I would write a book someday. Holding that first copy of my book in my hands was a surreal moment – and, oh so thrilling! And seeing it on a library shelf? Well…it’s all come full circle.

  6. carroll goldstein says:

    My favorite weekend trip as a child was to the public library! I retired from education 3 years ago as a school guidance counselor but I always spent my free time in the school library.I love books and want to share the joys of reading with everyone, so I built my little free library and will launch it as soon as it is painted! I can’t wait to become a sidewalk librarian!

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Necee Regis

Necee Regis
A freelance writer with an MFA from Mass College of Art, Necee Regis is a frequent contributor to the travel and food sections of The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, and has also been featured in the Los Angeles Times, American Way Magazine, Spirit Magazine, The Globe and Mail, and the literary magazine, Tin House. Excerpts from her novel, Glitterbox, were published in Gulf Stream: New Voices From Miami (2003) and in Hacks: 10 Years On Grub Street (2007). She is currently polishing her second novel, and welcomes all serious queries from agents, interlopers, thrill seekers, and her mom. She lives in Boston and Miami Beach. Read Full