By Stephanie Cohen
This article first appeared at Acculturated.com.
This summer I’ve been to two beaches—one in New Jersey and one in Connecticut. At both places my kids found free “libraries.” On one boardwalk, a boat shaped bookcase invited beachgoers to grab a title and settle in under their umbrella. At the next beach, a cart with rows of books for the taking next to the lifeguard office made us stop and browse before heading down to the water.
In recent years, the Little Free Library movement has invited residents of any town to build a small one room library at their homes—one room means the size of a large birdhouse—to lend out books to anyone who passes by. All of these efforts are loosely tied to the “take-a-book-leave-a-book” philosophy that encourages people to share books, lend books, give them away, all in an effort to cherish the power of the bound book. Little Free Library will sell you a book box to install outside your home for between $275-$500, throw some books in or cultivate a collection, and sit back and watch. There is a Neighborhood Library Builders Guild, if you want to build your own personal-styled free library box.
Do a search of the news and you’ll find Girl Scout groups, Cub Scout packs, and Rotary Clubs building free libraries. You’ll find these little libraries outside a senior center in Minnesota, in front of public schools and soup kitchens, and on a street in Yemen. From place to place, people are becoming DYI librarians with these make-shift, open access, grab-and-go lending boxes of books. They are also testing our instinct and our willingness to reach for a book when there is no charge and no responsibility to return it. “If they’re taking books, the blessing is that they’re reading,” one free library owner said.
The idea of book vending machines is hardly new, nor is the notion of making books free. A library without a librarian is at the heart of EnvisionWare’s Library of the Future—a mobile book checkout and return system. Think of a bank ATM machine, only this one dispenses up to 400 books.
As a recent article in New York Magazine described, free book vending machines have sprung up in a section of Washington, DC to distribute books to children as easily as a bottle of Gatorade or bag of Doritos. Sponsored by JetBlue, the vending machines are part of the airline’sSoar With Reading program, which has given away 27,000 books in its first year. The vending machines are now deployed at five locations in Detroit as well, and will dispense 100,000 free books. These vending machines are aimed at countering so-called “book deserts”—neighborhoods where access to books, magazines, bookstores, and libraries is limited or nonexistent.
Free books have not always been a staple of American society—nor has the idea of giving away books. In 1878, no state had passed a compulsory free text book law, according to William Isaac Marshall, in his 1895 study, “Should the Public Schools Furnish Text Books Free to All Students.”
But a handful of individual cities had acted earlier. Philadelphia was the first city to offer students free books beginning in 1818. New Jersey was guaranteeing free books for compulsory education in a majority of cities by 1892, while specific cities like Newark and Paterson had acted decades earlier. Chicago became known as the “only first class city” with a population above 300,000 in 1889 not to offer free text books, according to Marshall.
And the free books movement of today is dwarfed by the efforts of earlier philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie and others. Public libraries, for most children, continue to be the best place to find free books. The New York Public Library just announced that it has made 300,000 books available for download for free using a new app. Free books are also available through some UPS stores in the summer, via the Read to Grow program which provides free books to families of newborn babies before they leave the hospital, or through nonprofits like Better World Books that hand out over 3,000 free books via a bookmobile in Indiana. For anyone with an internet connection, Project Gutenberg offers over 50,000 e-books, including most of the classics.
And yet, while it may seem like we are awash in ever more free books—both print and e-books—the truth is that the number of Americans who report reading a book has declined. This—not the existence of “book deserts”—is the real challenge. Placing books on American street-corners and sidewalks where they might benefit those who would otherwise have the furthest to drive, bike, or walk to encounter a book is certainly noble. But the impact will likely be limited unless we double down and aggressively nurture a reading culture in our citizens from a young age. You can place books in any desert, but no one will drink if they don’t first understand what it means to be thirsty.