Public Libraries, Little Free Libraries, and Embedded Librarians

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It’s time I got around to posting something about my experience at the Texas Library Association conference earlier this month. I had a great time! It’s a huge event — I heard that the total attendance was over 7,000. That makes it probably the second biggest conference of librarians in North America, next to ALA.  One thing I particularly value is that it it takes a holistic view of librarianship, and tries to appeal to all sectors and contexts. Naturally, it’s dominated by public and school librarians, but there’s plenty for academics, librarians in the corporate sector, and other specialized settings too. Thanks to that breadth, I was pleased to note the presence of some public and school librarians, as well as academics and specialized librarians, at the sessions on embedded librarianship. Similarly, I benefitted from the opportunity to hear speakers whom I might not otherwise encounter, like Ross Todd speaking about evaluation in school library media programs, among others.

But my most surprising experience was my conversation with Todd Bol, co-founder of the Little Free Libraries program. (littlefreelibrary.org) Coincidentally, I’d had my own first close encounter with a Little Free Library just a couple days before. I noticed a newly-installed one outside the Janney School, a public elementary school in the Tenleytown neighborhood of Washington DC, and took a picture of it, which I used in my presentation. 236

So I mentioned this to Todd, and we fell into a lengthy conversation. I learned what an extensive network of Little Free Libraries exists, how well organized is the effort to sustain it, and something of its history. I won’t repeat all the details here; you can go to the website to check it out. (And I encourage you to do so.)

The point is, the Little Free Library movement facilitates and leverages local initiative. Where Little Free Libraries thrive, it’s because someone in the community believed in the idea enough to take initiative, and the community supported it.

So, what’s the relationship between Little Free Libraries and the local public library? Are they competitors? Should they have nothing to do with one another? Or is there a role for public libraries to engage and partner with the Little Free Libraries? I think the latter. But not to take over Little Free Libraries, or sponsor them, or manage them. That would undermine their fundamental strength, which is community, volunteer-led initiative. Rather, I can imagine ways that public libraries could support and encourage the Little Free Libraries in their communities — everything from publicizing them (and maybe planting the idea for others to start them) to hosting meetups of local Little Free Library stewards. The idea would be to facilitate, not to control. That kind of relationship is true to David Lankes’ mission statement for librarians: to facilitate the creation of knowledge in their communities. It seems to me it’s also consistent with John Pateman and Ken Williment’s principles of community-led public libraries, as well. (See their book, Developing Community-Led Public Libraries.)

This could be one element of a public library’s community engagement strategy. Obviously it shouldn’t be the whole strategy. There are other needs that the Little Free Library doesn’t meet, and that the public library needs to be involved in. But it’s one way of magnifying the energy that already exists in the community — and it’s one more opportunity to embed librarians in the community as well.

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