Artists and activists like to talk about the “grassroots.” But the number of ideas and projects that are truly powered by a decentralized network of passionate, everyday people is surprisingly few. Most movements that claim to be grassroots are driven, in fact, by centralized institutions that prescribe their agenda, language, and funding.

This fact makes the phenomenon of Little Free Libraries all the more remarkable—and radical. Little Free Libraries (LFLs) are humble book-sharing boxes, often owner-built to resemble tiny buildings, that stand in a front yard and serve as an invitation to take a book and leave one for another reader. Built, stocked, and maintained entirely by volunteers (known as “stewards”), LFLs are truly by, of, and for the people.

In this well-conceived and delightfully accessible volume, Margret Aldrich traces the inception, staggering growth (from zero to 25,000 LFLs since 2009), and impact of the movement, which began in 2009. Todd Bol, who constructed the first one in Wisconsin, now directs a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting would-be LFL stewards. It’s not a simple story, but Aldrich captures its idiosyncratic contours simply by telling the stories of stewards from around the world.

The remarkable proliferation of the libraries can be explained only partly by the basic appeal of the idea—readers sharing books they love. An equal factor is the allure of the artful wee structures themselves. Aldrich’s book includes photos that capture a charming variety that she rightly identifies as a form of public art. Stewards also remark on the sense of community that a Little Library inspires, as neighbors learn to share—in addition to books—stories, help, and meals.

Finally, as with any truly grassroots phenomenon, each Little Library takes on a life of its own. One steward discovered this firsthand when she interrupted herself sneaking out at night to weed out the romance novels that had proliferated amongst her high-brow academic books. “I realized we were banning books! What was next, book burning?” this steward tells Aldrich. “The very essence of the Little Free Library philosophy is to promote a book-loving democracy.”
Correction: The print issue lists 2010 as the start date. Bol built the first LFL in 2009.

Joe Hart has been a senior editor of Public Art Review, and is a writer, editor, and musician living in rural Wisconsin.

From Public Art Review #52.