The ties that bind: Little Free Libraries bring sense of community, fun to neighborhoods

Need a book? Take one. Got a book? Leave one.

CINCINNATI -- Little Free Libraries offer something for everyone, whether young or old, looking to downsize or hoping to expand their mind. And they're increasing in number around Greater Cincinnati.

Little Free Library is a nonprofit that promotes literacy through book exchange boxes. Resembling decorative mailboxes, the libraries provide books for passersby free of charge. No library card is needed. Books needn't be returned, although readers are encouraged to bring them back or replace them with books from their own collections.

"The idea is to make books accessible for everyone," said Angela Ginty, development officer for Cincinnati Development Fund, a nonprofit loan fund that supports real estate projects in low-income communities. The organization established what Ginty believes was the first Little Free Library in Over-the-Rhine at 13th and Republic streets in June 2016. 

Stewards maintain and refill Little Free Libraries. (Photo provided)

"We see a natural connection between this small work and the greater work that we do," she said.

The first Little Free Library was created in Wisconsin in 2009. Today, book exchange boxes operate under the organization's name in all 50 states and abroad. There are more than 50,000 Little Free Libraries in 70 countries.

Little Free Libraries are established by stewards who build or buy the book exchange boxes and maintain them. Premade boxes as well as tutorials for building one from scratch are available for purchase through the Little Free Library website.

Some Little Free Libraries are geared toward certain demographics. For example, a book exchange box installed this spring at Deerfield Township's Cottell Park was created with children in mind. However, most Little Free Libraries are stocked with a variety ranging from children's literature to mystery novels written for adults.

"You never know when you open the door what you're going to find," said Little Free Library steward Carol Kortz.

The stewards are as diverse as the stories inside the boxes.

Kortz started her library in June 2015 as a way to do something for her community in Pierce Township after retiring. Her Little Free Library was custom-made to resemble the Legendary Run Community Center in front of which it's located. She dedicated it to a friend, a school librarian who died of cancer.

"That really put a face on this project," Kortz said.

Steward David Annett got his Little Free Library through a parent-teacher organization fundraiser at Hyde Park School. The box, which he installed at the corner of Observatory and Monteith avenues, was decorated by third-graders at the school. Annett enjoys seeing students showing off their work while walking through the neighborhood.

"It feels like their thing, and it stayed in the neighborhood," he said.

The Little Free Library at Cottell Park was created by two local teens. Although township officials worked with them to help find a location for it, the teens took the initiative to raise the funds and design the box.

"They actually had the whole idea themselves," said Deerfield Township recreation coordinator Stephanie Gebele.

The teens also are responsible for checking on the library and making sure it remains stocked with books.

"One of the things we talked to them about was the maintenance," Gebele said. "So, they go and check on it."

Maintenance and stocking duties vary depending on the stewards and where the library is located. 

"People leave books in the library and take books," Ginty said. "The whole idea is sharing."

More people take books than leave them at the 13th and Republic location, but that's not a bad thing, she said. She typically refills the box from a supply of donated books a couple times a week. Cincinnati Development Fund also acts as a collection point for books for six other Little Free Libraries in Over-the-Rhine.

"We're the book hub for them," Ginty said.

Annett stocked his Little Free Library when he installed it in the spring and hasn't had to since. Many of his book exchange's patrons are regular visitors and contributors.

"It's fun to see people engage with it repeatedly and also contribute to it," he said.

Kortz's library has an ample supply of books from community residents and local book club members. Community members have contributed in other ways, too. A local garden club donated plants and landscaped around the book exchange box. Another neighbor donated a bench.

"It's been a labor of love for not just me but pretty much the whole community," Kortz said.

While her Little Free Library's visitors regularly swap books out, she enjoys changing things up with themes centered on holidays or specific styles of literature.

The fun and novelty of rotating book selections seems to be a common theme among stewards.

"The neat thing is, it's always changing what's in it," Annett said.

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