Little Free Libraries for You and Me

**Disclaimer-While I have my MLS, I am not currently a librarian. I’m a PhD student in Rhetoric and I’m a graduate research assistant in the TWU library, where I’ve worked for 5 years. I also happen to be taking a library school class as an elective. These posts are part of a weekly reading response. I am not speaking as a library expert. I’m speaking as a student and observer.**

This week’s readings for my LIS class continued with So You Want To Talk About Race (Chapter 4 – 17) and Racecraft (Chapter 4 and Chapter 7). We also had articles added, including:

  • “How Cute! Race, Gender, and Neutrality in Libraries”
  • “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”
  • “Recognizing, Understanding, and Avoiding Ableism”

The first two readings were a continuation from last week’s. They’re heavy, as one would expect but I’m enjoying them. I’m still trying to digest them but I’ll go into more detail once we’ve finished them. 

I read “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” for a pedagogy class last fall (2020) so I was already familiar with this one. The author speaks of her experiences with realizing her own privilege. The article was originally published in the late ‘80s but still resonates with issues that we face today. That one hit particularly hard for me, given a conversation I had with my mother who, after arguing about Trump’s election at Thanksgiving 2016, arrogantly told me that she “doesn’t believe in white privilege.” Outside of 5 minutes at my Bachelor’s and Master’s graduations, this was the last time I was with her for any length of time. There are some battles that you just can’t win, and this is one of them. My need to get away from a toxic situation was stronger than my need to explain to her why she was wrong about everything.

“Recognizing, Understanding, and Avoiding Ableism” brought to mind a number of ways that I have been unthinking or inconsiderate over the years, which makes me extremely uncomfortable, given the fact that I have my own invisible disabilities. I have ADHD, dyscalculia, and multiple chronic pain and illness issues. For a long time I believed that, if I could deal with it, anyone can, and it took me years to deprogram myself. It’s not that I believe I’m stronger than others. Quite the opposite. I’ve always seen myself as very weak, so I assume that everyone else must be much more equipped than I am to get through their lives, whatever their disabilities. I know better now and I’m working to be a more understanding person. My experience is not the same as that of others and recognizing this has changed my viewpoint about many things. 

The piece that resonated with me the most, though, was “How Cute! Race, Gender, and Neutrality in Libraries.” Specifically, I was interested in the author’s discussion of Little Free Libraries. Ostensibly, Little Free Libraries are a place for communities to participate in a “take a book, leave a book” system. It’s a good idea, in theory, In practice, however it’s something else. The author explains that “while Little Free Library claims to help residents located in ‘book deserts,’ many are located on private property in gentrifying, well-resourced, and white neighborhoods” (9).

Reading this was especially well-timed, given the very publicized incident that happened over the summer in Bloomington, Indiana. The Bloomington Police Department put out a tweet in July stating that they had just donated “a bunch of books” to a Little Free Library because it had been emptied by a thief and they posted a picture of an officer posing with the homeowner who put up the library. There was a massive backlash to the tweet which is when the BPD tried to explain themselves by saying that “an individual was taking every book from the libraries. It is common that they are then sold for a profit, which is not the intent for the libraries.” Library Twitter responded in it’s usual fashion, largely due to the fact that used books, like the kind that are often found in these libraries, aren’t going to sell for much and therefore, if someone is taking them and selling them, perhaps they truly needed the money and didn’t deserve to have the cops called on them. Having said that, there was no evidence of “theft.” The BPD just made an assumption and tried to use their donation as good publicity. 

If Little Free Libraries are located in largely white, gentrified  neighborhoods, they do not serve the community in its entirety. In order for them to do any real good, they need to be located in communities that don’t have access to books. However, this begs the question: if a community needs access to books, why are there no libraries in the area to serve these communities? Wouldn’t it be better to build libraries where they are needed? While I do actually like the idea of Little Free libraries and I find them to be charming, for me they have the same energy as children who set up lemonade stands to earn money to pay for a classmate’s medical treatment. On the surface it seems sweet, but it speaks to a much larger problem; specifically, the lack of access to essential services. And libraries are essential services. People shouldn’t be left to fend for themselves like this but too often, that’s exactly what happens.

And too, there is the issue of police “intervention.” Why would anyone call the police because someone has taken all of the books out of their Little Free Library (I know why but I’m making a point)? Isn’t that the entire purpose? And, in all honesty, how often are the books left in these libraries of any use to anyone? A stroll through Library Twitter will tell you exactly what kind of books are usually left and they aren’t great. They’re books that the public libraries won’t take as donations and they can’t be sold for more than a few dollars at most because they’re outdated, in bad condition, and unwanted. This is one of those situations where the idea is better in theory than in practice and we need to consider how effective Little Free Libraries actually are and how the gaps that they’re supposed to fill could be better handled with more funding for public libraries. But that is a whole other conversation.

Works Cited:

Dunn, D. (2019). Recognizing, Understanding, and Avoiding Ableism

Fields, B. J., & Fields, K. (2012). Racecraft: The soul of inequality in American life. Verso.

McIntosh, P. (2019). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. On Privilege, Fraudulence, and Teaching As Learning, 29–34.

Oluo, I. (2020). So you want to talk about race. Seal Press.

Schlesselman-Tarango, G. (2017). How cute! race, gender, and neutrality in libraries. Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 12(1).

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