Little Free Libraries build community

Posted: July 24th, 2015 | Features, From the cover, Top Stories | No Comments

By Jeremy Ogul | Editor

La Mesa Library has long been an anchor of the community, but several new libraries have emerged over the past couple years.

Unless you live down the street from one, you may not have noticed them — that’s because most of them take up no more than two or three square feet. Known as Little Free Libraries, they resemble birdhouses or oversized mailboxes with windows. They are usually placed in front yards and maintained by the homeowner.

They function on a “take a book, leave a book” honor system — anyone is free to borrow a book, and there is usually no requirement to return that exact book to that exact library by a given time. Neighbors are encouraged to share their favorite books with the neighborhood by placing them in the Little Free Library. Because of this system, the collection changes every day.

The official Little Free Library website lists four registered libraries in the area: one in west La Mesa on Ohio Place, one on Spring Street, one on Sunrise Lane in the Boulder Heights neighborhood and one in the Grossmont-Mt. Helix area. An unregistered library at Sprouts inspired multiple others in the region. Two more libraries were recently established just north of La Mesa’s northern border in San Carlos: one on Blue Lake Avenue and one on Lake Lucerne Drive.

Claudia Erickson is the steward of a Little Free Library on Lovell Lane.

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Junior Girl Scouts from Troop 6223 work together to build a library for a La Mesa dentist.
(Courtesy Tiffany Christian)

“I just love hearing parents come down the street with their kids to get a book,” she said. “It gets them out of the house, in nature … and it promotes literacy.”

Erickson, who works for a childhood literacy program, heard about the concept through an associate and remembered seeing a library at Sprouts. Last December, a neighbor helped modify a decorative model “outhouse” she had in her front yard so that it could be used to house books. The gardener insisted on installing a small light inside. Neighbors eagerly donate books and even other items, such as seeds, to share with others.

“Everybody’s kind of taken a little ownership in it,” she said. “It’s sort of taken on a life of its own.”

On a recent afternoon the Lovell Lane library included books by a diverse array of authors, from Reinhold Niebuhr to J.D. Salinger to Patricia Cornwell. Genre selections ranged from travel to crime fiction to psychology to children’s literature.

In the downtown village area, Dr. Santiago Surillo’s dentistry office hosts a Little Free Library that was built by members of the local Girl Scouts Troop 6223 from the Fletcher Hills area.

Tiffany Christian, whose daughter is part of the troop, helped the 11 junior girls organize the project last summer as part of their effort to earn a Bronze Award.

“It worked out really well, because it was a local, homegrown project,” Christian said.

The girls did everything themselves: they came up with the idea, designed the library, sought donations, built it, stocked it with books and found a home for it at the office of the dentist that several of them know. Christian’s husband is a general contractor who lent his expertise in woodworking and carpentry.

“They loved using the power tools. It made us a little nervous, but they’ve got to grow up sometime,” Christian said with a laugh.

Madison Christian, Tiffany’s daughter, said it was a fun project that has helped the community.

“The dentist tells us that they get a lot of compliments on it,” Madison said. “Not everybody can afford the books, but they can swap them out for the old ones they don’t read anymore.”

The Girl Scouts’ finished product in Dr. Santiago Surillo’s office. (Courtesy Tiffany Christian)

The Girl Scouts’ finished product in Dr. Santiago Surillo’s office.
(Courtesy Tiffany Christian)

According to the Little Free Library website, the movement began in Wisconsin in 2009 when Todd Bol built a miniature model of a one-room schoolhouse in honor of his late mother, a former teacher who loved to read. Bol stocked the little schoolhouse with books and mounted it on a post with a sign that read “FREE BOOKS” in his front yard, delighting his neighbors and friends.

Bol soon got together with Rick Brooks, a University of Wisconsin Madison instructor who specializes in community development and social enterprises.

“I’m always looking for manageable projects that connect people on a personal level to where they live,” Brooks said in a 2012 interview with OnWisconsin Magazine. “What’s better than books?”

Bol and Brooks built 30 Little Free Libraries in 2010 and distributed them to neighbors and friends in their community. From there, the movement spread organically. Inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic effort to establish more than 2,500 free public libraries around the turn of the 20th century, Bol and Brooks set a goal to establish 2,510 Little Free Libraries. They reached that goal in August 2012; there are now nearly 30,000 Little Free Libraries all over the world.

To find a Little Free Library near you or to learn about establishing your own, visit

—Write to Jeremy Ogul at

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