Education

Little libraries connect readers to their neighborhoods

Grady Hagenbuch and Willa Hudson with their little library near the intersection of Maple Street and Guild Hill Road in Waterbury Center. Photo by Dana Hudson


by Abbie Kopelowitz, Community News Service


They’re colorful and quirky and spread out in multiple Waterbury neighborhoods.

And when you ask around, no one seems to know about all of them.

But everyone knows of at least one of them.

They’re Waterbury’s little lending libraries and during the pandemic especially, Waterbury residents spending more time at home came to appreciate and even add to their ranks around town.

These tiny, all-weather libraries are built for neighborhood book exchanges where community members can take or leave a book. Trading is optional as some may just want to take and enjoy one of the novels, children’s books and more found packed onto the shelves.

The concept has been around for a while. In 2009, the late Todd Bol from Hudson, Wisconsin, created the first tiny library for his own front yard as a tribute to his mother, a schoolteacher who loved to read. Others soon wanted libraries, and Bol teamed up with Rick Brooks from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to build, number, and give away the bookhouses using the name Little Free Library.

They were inspired by gift-sharing networks like “take a book, leave a book” collections in coffee shops and other public spaces. By 2012, there were 4,000 libraries in use around the country and Little Free Library officially became a national nonprofit organization. Its website grew to include an interactive map where people can add information on little libraries. By 2020, it had tracked more than 100,000 registered Little Free Libraries worldwide.

Today the organization advocates and promotes the installation of these book-sharing boxes across the nation and beyond. Its website, littlefreelibrary.org continues to log new entries showing little library locations. It relies on little library enthusiasts to register their libraries, so it’s hardly complete. (Waterbury, for example, only has three entries on the map.)

Local little libraries got their start several years ago with a project at Crossett Brook Middle School that put up the first two. Since then at least six more have been added around town. Readers of all ages benefit from these book-sharing boxes, thanks to those who build and manage them.

And not everyone who looks after the libraries built them. Last December, a local 7-year-old was recognized in Revitalizing Waterbury’s holiday Acts of Kindness effort for her role as Waterbury’s “Book Santa” who regularly checks on the little libraries to help organize them and stock them with reading materials for other kids to enjoy.

Contrary to what some might think, the Waterbury Public Library is not involved with the tiny neighborhood libraries. “They are very much a grassroots initiative!” said library Director Rachel Muse. The effort to put books around town is appreciated, however, and Muse offered that used books from the public library are available to help stock the neighborhood collections. “If folks want withdrawn library books for the little libraries, we’d be happy to provide some,” she said.

After undertaking an informal survey, Waterbury Roundabout has compiled stories about eight little libraries around town, their builders or caretakers. If we missed any, please let us know in the story comments or send an email to waterburyroundabout@gmail.com.

Stowe, Randall streets

In 2017, students from Crossett Brook Middle School constructed Waterbury’s first two little lending libraries.The sixth graders of the Dream Team were behind this project. Teacher Colleen Barrett explained that these free little library installations were her team’s community service project.

“We had builders, painters, and designers,” said Barrett. “We even had kids whose job was to go out into the community to scout locations.”

One library was installed on Stowe Street in front of what was then Thatcher Brook Primary School (renamed in 2021 to Brookside). The other was placed on Randall Street. Barrett said that it took the whole school year to design, build, paint, and prepare the libraries.

The students voted on themes. The library in front of the school became Harry Potter-themed and the library on Randall is a dedication to the seasons of Vermont.

Randall Street’s library is managed by Tom Drake, principal of Crossett Brook Middle School, who offered to set up the second library in front of his house. He was happy to see his students complete a project involving construction, allowing for creativity and hands-on learning.

Drake calls the library a “sharing vehicle,” and he encourages everyone who’s interested to take a book, even if they don’t have a book to replace it. He noted that activity increased during the COVID-19 pandemic and that the little lending library is still stocked with all kinds of books. “They’ve been powerful little units when the library closed,” he said.

The Randall Street library contains a little bit of everything: stories for children, religious books, autobiographies, and even lengthy academic novels. Drake says that people also began leaving puzzles, DVDs, and magazines.

“I will sit there on my front porch and see a lot of people come by and stop to look – some are little kids, but there are also a lot of adults out for a walk with a dog. The library was a fabulous idea.”

Maple Street at Guild Hill Road

Over in Waterbury Center, Dana Hudson of Sweet Bird Farm helped set up her family’s tiny library. Having seen them in other places, Hudson always loved the idea of little lending libraries.

“I love the fact that it encourages reading and community sharing,” she said.

Within the same year as Crossett Brook Middle School’s tiny library installations, Hudson asked her husband to get the family one for Christmas. After waiting for the ground to thaw to put in a post, the family got to work. Everyone painted a different side of the box and collected old books to get the library started.

“It very quickly got filled,” Hudson said. “It’s a popular road for biking, walking and jogging so it got lots of action.”

Hudson said that most books don’t sit in the little library too long, and that the fast turnover makes it so she doesn’t have to restock. Her main job is to make sure the lending library itself is ok, ensuring that the structure is secure and the paint doesn’t chip.

“It’s a self perpetuating community project,” she said.

The books offered in this library accommodate a mixed audience, according to Hudson. There are lots of kids books for early readers, middle schoolers, or young adults.

Hudson noticed that people began putting other trading items in the library such as seeds, crossword puzzles and coloring books.

“The next thing we were hoping to do is put up a little mini art gallery,” she said, explaining her idea of setting up a trading post next to the library for little crafts or art pieces such as painted rocks, bracelets, or small pictures.

Ripley Road

Chris Hancock

For a little over two years, Chris Hancock has managed her little lending library on Ripley Road. As a lover of books, she always wanted to install a tiny library on her street. The library marked its two-year anniversary this Memorial Day.

Hancock set the library up with the idea of being able to see people and meet people on her road.

“I knew it was kind of a long shot because there’s not a lot of walking traffic, but I thought, even if there’s some traffic, it’ll be a nice little addition,” Hancock said.

On the edge of a dirt road, the library looks like a little house with a big front window with two shelves inside for books. She says that the library gets more action when the weather is nice, and she is hoping for more turnaround this summer.

Hancock said she checks on the library once a week, and she notes that there are mostly adult books with a handful of stories for younger readers. To refresh the library’s selection, she tends to collect secondhand books that people will enjoy: “the kinds of books that I think are easy to get lost in,” she explained.

Winooski Street

The little library on Winooski Street, painted purple for pancreatic cancer awareness, was dedicated to Waterbury’s Freya Chaffee. One of her daughters, Michelle Chaffee, is a teacher in Massachusetts at Silver Lake Regional Middle School. The school bought the little lending library for Chaffee and the family when her mother died in 2020.

The purple little library on Winooski Street that honors Freya Chaffee is installed near the home of her daughter, Phoebe Pelkey, and her family who look after it. Courtesy photo

Chaffee served as a member of the Waterbury Library Commission for years, and she worked on the project that built the new Waterbury Public Library in 2015. According to her daughter Phoebe Pelky, she was an avid reader and a lover of books.

Pelky is the “little librarian” of the Winooski Street library. As a reader herself, she offers many of her own books for trade. She says that the location is popular and that the neighborhood appreciates all the activity.

“I think people got away from the library a little bit during the pandemic because it was closed,” said Pelky, “so I think the little libraries served a bigger role.”

The library is still going strong, and Pelky said she enjoys managing the books to make sure her selection always has quality novels. She believes that little lending libraries are a great way for readers to donate the books they purchase.

“It’s kind of fun to be the steward of it to see people enjoying the books and then making sure I maintain it,” she said.Pelkey noted that her mother was an advocate for children’s literacy as the coordinator of the Everybody Wins! program with the local schools. Given that Chaffee was both an advocate and an enjoyer of reading, the little lending library seemed like the perfect dedication in her honor as a way to give back to the community.

Waterbury Unleashed Dog Park

Waterbury Unleashed Dog Park has a tiny library (and a box for dog toys to borrow, too). Photo by Gordon Miller

There is a little lending library in the Waterbury Unleashed Dog Park on River Road. Several years back, the structure was built by Bill Apao, who also constructed the park’s Adirondack chairs, picnic table, shed, and kiosk.

When the tiny library was first built, Apao put dog-related books on the shelves. Today, the library remains in the park for anyone who wants to trade books. On the ground near the little library is a wooden box where people can also leave and trade dog toys or other handy dog items.

Gregg Hill Road

Looking for family projects during the pandemic, Kelley Hackett set up her little lending library in May 2020. Her husband Cory built the structure to hold the books while her three children all played a part in painting the sides, finding books, and planting the library at the end of their road, she recalled.

The Gregg Hill Road little library was a project by the Hackett family. Kelley Hackett and daughter Annika make sure there are always books for kids inside. Courtesy photo

Hackett said that her library is largely self-sufficient, and that the frequent rotation of books is a testament to the regular visitors. This library has a little bit of everything, she said.

When she noticed that the children’s books did not seem to move quickly, she incorporated the little lending library into her home childcare program. She has taken the children down the road to visit the library box, allowing each of the kids to choose a book to bring back with them.“They were so excited to go bring their book home and read it,” Hackett said. “Some of them even came back a few days later to put it back.”

Even after seeing the many enjoyers of her own family’s library, Hackett says that some people don’t realize how many little lending libraries are out there.

“I think it would be neat to just see all the different little libraries that we have in our town,” she says.

Perry Hill Road

The last entry on our list is a somewhat-stealth tiny library on Perry Hill, tucked next to the mailbox at the end of the driveway at 1695 Perry Hill Road.

It has an official plate from the Little Free Library organization, although it is not listed on the online map. Having discovered this one this past weekend, efforts to contact the residents there to learn more haven’t been successful yet.

Inside just days ago, there was a typical eclectic collection of more than a dozen titles that included two Maurice Sendak books (“Where the Wild Things Are” and a pocket-sized hardcover copy of “Chicken Soup With Rice”), Tim Russert’s memoir “Big Russ & Me,” the non-fiction mountaineering tale “Touching the Void” by Joe Simpson, the first book of the fantasy classic series “The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials,” Sandra Brown’s thriller “The Alibi,” and a sturdy, thick copy of Mem Fox/Helen Oxenbury’s “Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes” picture book.

First published August 4 in Waterbury Roundabout

Categories: Education

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