Study after study has shown access to books and literature is critical when learning to read. While many people think of children when talking about literacy, in Nebraska there are a growing number of adults who can’t read. But a new type of library may hold a key to solving the problem.
In a quiet Lincoln neighborhood stands the Losh Little Free Library. It looks like a large birdhouse, but through a glass door on the front you can see what’s really nesting inside, about three dozen books. A sign on the top encourages people to take one, or leave one.
Some of the items available inside the Losh Little Free Library. Lacy Losh says since she opened the LFL a year ago, all the books in the library have been donated from the people living in her neighborhood. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Lacey Losh is known as a steward in the Little Free Library community, which means she takes care of everything. From building it to keeping it stocked, Losh said stewards do it all out of the kindness of their heart.
“It’s just really about sharing my love of reading. That started really young with my parents reading to me and I continued to read and got involved in book clubs and book groups,” Losh explained.
There are at least 23 Little Free Libraries in Lincoln and dozens more across the state--from Omaha in the east to Brule in the west.
Most have themes or specific design concepts, but the idea behind each one is the same.
“It’s just a box of books, that’s available to everyone, 24/7,” Losh said.
Each Little Free Library is unique. Inside the Losh LFL, steward Lacey Losh says she keeps a journal for people to leave messages about the books they've read, the books they're leaving, or just to say "hello". (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Little Free Libraries were born out of the mind of a Wisconsin man, Todd Bol, in 2009. He built a replica of a small schoolhouse in honor of his mother, a former schoolteacher. Now five years later, there are Little Free Libraries in every state across the country and on almost every continent across the world.
Losh said what makes LFL’s so popular, is their simplicity.
“People can come up at night. We’ve got a little automatic light that comes on--like in a refrigerator-- so people can come whenever their schedule allows,” Losh said. “The other neat thing is you don’t have to worry about returning it at a particular time. I mean basically you take the book, you own the book.”
A library that just let’s you keep the books? That’s not at all how Lincoln City Libraries operate. Just ask Director Pat Leach about people with over-due materials.
“We do use a library collection agency to follow up on library customers who have a certain level of unreturned materials or a certain level of over-due charges that haven’t been paid yet, so it is significant,” Leach said.
The Director of Lincoln City Libraries, Pat Leach, said, "What I love about Little Free Libraries is it’s individuals stepping up to say, 'I think this is so important that I’ve built a Little Free Library, I’ve put it in my yard, and I put some really cool stuff in it,' That is just a great measure of how much people value education and reading." (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Just to be clear, Lincoln City Libraries only employ collection agencies in extreme cases.
Leach said libraries are all about sharing, and if someone is being greedy with materials, or just taking a while to return them, someone else is missing out.
And it’s here where Leach said Public Libraries and Little Free Libraries can work together.
Leach, a self-admitted “huge fan” of LFL’s, said if someone finds something they really like at the Losh Little Free Library, then they might be inspired to go to a public library in search of more materials by the same author or about the same subject.
“I think that everybody that makes books available in the community, all boats float because of that,” Leach said.
A Little Free Library is also helping some boats float at Lincoln Literacy, whose mission is to help people of all cultures and backgrounds learn to read, write and communicate effectively in English.
Clayton Naff is the executive director of Lincoln Literacy.
“[Lincoln] is changing very rapidly and it’s changing primarily in the international dimension. We now have more than 10 percent of our households where English is not the primary language,” Naff said.
He continued, “In those households, the picture is very mixed. Even if they learn to read and write in their home countries, they may not be able to read and write in English.”
The Little Free Library outside the Lincoln Literacy offices in downtown Lincoln is one of the most used LFL's in town. Clay Naff, the executive director of Lincoln Literacy, said programs like LFL's encourage reading and can help adults who can't read feel more comfortable about learning how to read. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
“We’re in a location where we can see the capitol from the window, but this is a low-income neighborhood and it’s a neighborhood with people from all kinds of backgrounds. So some will have books at home, but others won’t. For those who don’t, this is an opportunity just to start that habit,” Naff said.
The Little Free Library outside Lincoln Literacy is now the best sign of community outreach the organization has, according to Naff, attracting readers of all ages and backgrounds.
“Some of the refugees that we work with have little formal education. Others have been outright denied the right to learn to read and write in any language. We’re able through our wonderful volunteers to overcome that and help them become readers for the first time in their lives,” Naff said.
Lacey Losh, the steward of the Losh Little Free Library, helped gather the grant money to pay for Lincoln Literacy’s LFL, after she saw the success and popularity of her own take off.
“I just really love to read and discuss books,” she said, “so it’s just another way for me to share my love of literature with the community. It’s a really nice fit.”
As they spread, Little Free Libraries help make that fit for more people.