Any psychologist will tell you that much of the allure of miniatures, for children, is control. Dollhouses, action figures, little china animals—these are all smaller than even the smallest of small people, offering the comfort of scale. But that’s also a bit of a simplistic explanation. There’s something mysterious in the tiny and also something manageable, both of which go far beyond the concept of simply being unthreatening. And I’d venture to say that the sudden interest everywhere in tiny libraries has more to do with these last two qualities. After all, these days libraries are far more threatened than threatening.
The small library phenomenon has been spreading over the past couple of years, popping up in all sorts of places. They take the form of performance art, crafts projects, civic experiments, popup and interim spaces, memorials, community initiatives. The People’s Library in New York’s Zuccotti Park, home of Occupy Wall Street for a while there, was one of the most media-friendly, with catalogers, archivists, and a Facebook page. There are a number of quieter not-for-profit private spaces scattered around as well, organized and documented and generally hip in one aspect or another. And then there are the do-it-yourselfers—“Little Free Libraries” popping up in quiet neighborhoods and urban spaces, in phone booths and newspaper vending boxes and homemade vitrines, some of them attributable and many anonymous. They come with notes: “Take one, give one back, please don’t disturb the shelves,” serving to bring community members together or—in the case of at least one friend—deaccession some books in friendly fashion.
Shannon Mattern has a very good essay in Design Observer entitled Little Libraries in the Urban Margins, where she looks at some of the impulses that lie behind the desire to stock a birdhouse, say, or a mailbox, with a pile of books for the taking. What she finds, mostly is that there is no common incentive:
These new library projects might seem to emerge from a common culture and uphold a common mission — a flurry of press coverage in late 2011 represented them as a coherent “little library” movement. But in fact they don’t. They have varied aims and politics and assumptions about what a library is and who its publics are; their collections and services differ significantly; and their forms and functions vary from one locality to another.
She also takes a look at the sheer diversity of DIY libraries, from storefront projects like Brooklyn’s Reanimation Library and San Francisco’s Ourshelves to portable installations like The Uni Project and the Biblioburro.
But I think a lot of interest derives from the truly tiny ones that barely announce their presence, taking the casual pedestrian by surprise. That sense of minor ambush makes me think of sculptor Charles Simonds’ guerrilla installations of tiny Dwellings in the ’70s, which managed to be both sneaky and whimsical—they would be a bit scary if they weren’t so damn cute. And little libraries, with their unexpectedness, are adorable and at the same time confrontational. They’re also nostalgic, a backward look in an age when the notions of libraries, and the communities that house them, are rapidly changing.
But whatever the motivation behind each one, it’s still a trend worth appreciating even in its most hyper-local hobbyist incarnations. The Little Free Library website showcases small library projects from all over, even selling prefabs and kits (at prices that will only appeal to the more upscale tiny librarians—for the rest of us, they have plans). There might even already be one in your neighborhood. (And although the idea is tempting, if only to get rid of some of my own books, I live across the street from a community center where teenagers hang out—not bad kids, but I somehow don’t think that would bode well for a tiny book-filled birdhouse. If anyone wants to try and talk me into it, though, you’re more than welcome.)
These are all charming, yes, but also a trend to take seriously. Real libraries—the kind that serve the larger community and beyond, that aren’t hip or particularly cute—are an entirely different prospect altogether. And as funding for them dwindles, and unfiltered information becomes ubiquitous, the distinction grows more important as the argument for their necessity becomes ever more crucial. Mattern asks us not to write off
the possibility that the affective experience these little libraries cultivate can be translated into political consciousness. Certainly we can’t allow our propensity to romanticize the nimble and provisional, and to admire the ingenuity of “pop up” culture, to blind us to the fact that operating a library is a logistically complicated endeavor that requires significant infrastructure and professional expertise—and public support…. We need to seriously consider how these little libraries might constructively partner with the big, bulky, bureaucratic institutions. And academic and public librarians need to consider that there are things they might learn from their pop-up counterparts.
In the meantime, though, it’s not a terrible thing to see the words “library” and “trendy” appear in the same sentence. And any awareness of the constructive, cohesive nature of sharing books is a good thing. A tiny library on every block? I can think of worse.
(Photo of the Leonard-Withers Corner Library in Brooklyn by Jean Hartig, courtesy of Poets & Writers.)