Fitting large community in a tiny box

Dual Little Free Libraries in Colonial Heights continue to be maintained after their original steward moved. (Photo by Lindsay Oxford)

Rose Cabral is on her second round of Little Free Library stewardship. Her original Little Free Library—technically two, a robot-shaped one for kids’ books and a more staid one for adults—still stand at the edge of the street, across from Colonial Park. Now that she’s moved, other members of the neighborhood keep it in working order.

“It’s kind of doing its own thing,” Cabral says, “which I really like.”

If you’re not familiar with the concept of a Little Free Library: A resident hosts an elevated, weather-safe box on a publicly-accessible portion of their property, and neighbors take and leave books as needed.

For me—a solitary, socially-avoidant person by nature—Little Free Libraries have been my source of beach reads and of classics I should have paid attention to in high school long before any of us had to parse out the meanings of social distancing and stay at home mandates.

The Little Free Library at Colonial Park is mere blocks from a brick-and-mortar branch of the Sacramento Public Library. But while the public library has been a core community space during less dire times, the Little Free Library has taken on special meaning as face-to-face social contact becomes limited during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think, especially now, it’s a way we can be together, but not be together,” Cabral says. “I think people are looking for those opportunities.”

A caveat here: Margret Aldrich, director of communications for the Little Free Library organization, recommends that those using Little Free Libraries should follow public health guidelines above all else.

However, the organization has also provided a guide for library stewards on how best to keep their Little Free Libraries safe during the pandemic, including discouraging library use by anyone showing signs of illness and using hand sanitizer on each visit.

This advice for library stewards is also worthwhile for patrons, once they’ve retrieved books:

“[Use] microfiber cloth rather than disinfectant wipes on paperbacks or books with cloth covers, so they [aren’t] damaged. For books with plastic covers, you can use disinfectant wipes. According to CNN Health, cleaning removes viruses and bacteria from surfaces, but disinfecting kills them.”

Online, you’ll see pictures of people repurposing Little Free Libraries for necessities such as canned food and toilet paper. But in a blog post on the Little Free Library’s website, Executive Director Greig Metzger, a former food bank director, suggests that there are more efficient ways to distribute goods. He recommends that libraries be used as collection points to host food drives and gather goods for already established food pantries in your area.

“Food shelves also have programs that serve the less mobile, like senior citizens or the handicapped,” Metzer said. “Too often these populations are overlooked. Food shelves don’t overlook them. Lastly, food shelves will have increased demand so [they] will need more food. More people contributing goes a long way to meeting the demand.”

Under the new stay at home restrictions, I’ll take late-evening walks to my Little Free Library at an hour when social distance is a sure bet. But I never feel lonely after visiting.

Instead, I leave it wondering who my fellow patrons are. Who left that copy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper? Who left The DaVinci Code? Could they be the same person? It may be months, if ever, before there’s enough rollback of social distancing to know.

You can find your nearest Little Free Library by visiting littlefreelibrary.org/ourmap.

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