This summer, I became fascinated with Free Little Libraries. For those unfamiliar, this is the official organization that encourages residential neighborhoods to create and install community libraries. They operate under the implicit regulation of taking a book and leaving one in return.
This fascination started as I decided to sort through my bookshelf and purge some books I realized I would never reread (I’m looking at you, young adult dystopian trilogies). My local library stopped taking donations, and I knew that the books weren’t worth much to sell them back to a second-hand, independent bookstore. Thus, I turned toward the Free Little Libraries which I have grown up driving past but hadn’t given much of a second thought.
I soon found out that Free Little Libraries has an app with geographic pinpoints of where to locate them in your local areas. Owners of these share the names of their libraries and occasionally the rationale for why they decided to build one. Some in my area were strategically placed near elementary schools, and the owners’ donations centered around children’s literature to foster literacy to young readers. Others included memorials which were named after a loved one who inspired their love for literature.
Some Free Little Libraries had “Alice in Wonderland” quotes inscribed in the sides, faux roof paneling and even benches installed so that neighbors could even enjoy the library’s offerings en plein air.
I took some time exploring neighborhoods while carrying around a box of my own books to share. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of things people placed in the Free Little Libraries, and even found books that I would consider purchasing at a bookstore.
After this experience, I contemplated the importance and implications of Free Little Libraries. The concept of intellectual freedom, even in a literary sense, is not always a guarantee. The most compelling indication of this restriction is the presence of “Banned Books Week.”
Launched in 1982, Banned Books Week was created in response to the increasing number of challenges of books within libraries, schools and even bookstores. This year, the awareness week takes place from September 18-24 with the theme “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.”
There was a lull in book challenges during the pandemic, but in the past year, as schools have been reopening since Fall 2021 after closures due to COVID-19, volumes of objections have increased rapidly. The American Library Association, who tracks book bans and challenges, typically faces 300-350 complaints annually. However, just in 2021, they reached approximately 730 complaints against over 1500 books.
Books have been banned on many accounts, protests ranging from books said to include explicit language, sexual references, themes involving racism, gender identity, violence, etc. Some commonly banned books include many classics such as “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and an increasing number of contemporary novels.
Even though many of these challenges toward books are meant to inhibit the dissemination of its contents, they often do the exact opposite. Publicity surrounding banned books often increases, and sales get an extra boost.
Many bookstores even hold displays and list challenges for commonly challenged books. Powell’s Bookstore, the “world’s largest independent bookstore,” hands out bookmarks year-round with reading recommendations with titles selected from the Banned Books list.
I spoke to Philip Schatz, the owner of South Bend’s “Erasmus Books,” over the phone to get the perspective of an independent bookstore in the South Bend area on Banned Books Week.
“There’s a hope on the part of some people that if they really structure a collection, like in a library, that they can protect people from unpleasant experiences and from growing up,” Philip shared. “And I think that’s a very natural desire. But a fatal one.”
While many complaints are filed, sometimes the main decision-makers aren’t the librarians themselves, who are versed with the knowledge of their personal collections and offerings. Instead, much of the debate is fueled by parents and even legislators, who may be fueled by the implications of book bans in the two-party system.
“Let the librarians have their say, and really let them be the deciding factors about the books that are in their collection because it’s in their best interest to promote readership,” Philip said. “They’re doing it in ways that are more informed than legislators have time to do.”
There have been many punitive consequences for establishments that continue to support books that have received controversy. Some organizations have had their funding slashed, and librarians have even lost their jobs. Brooky Parks, a librarian at Erie Community Library in Colorado, was terminated because she selected book titles for the teen book club that discussed pressing issues involving race in America. The violation was filed by the library’s district and claimed that the meetings were an attempt to “persuade participants to a particular point of view” and that they were “intentionally inflammatory.”
While libraries are meant to be a place to engage in diverse experiences and engage in open dialogues, they are constantly being delimited by an abundance of regulations. Many of these restrictions are rooted in public outcry based on hot topics or unsettling realities, rather than actual concern for the reader’s development.
While there is no clear-cut solution to the censorship of literature, I am drawn to the Free Little Libraries I found myself perusing throughout the summer. I revisited some week after week to find that most of the titles were completely different and that they were always in constant use. With such a free and open resource, I expected a “tragedy of the commons” kind of situation. But what is otherwise a box with one or two shelves became a welcoming place of intellectual curiosity and freedom.
I was surprised at how much care these Free Little Libraries were treated with, as the books were always in great condition, and there seemed to be a buzz of excitement whenever a fellow neighbor would make a weekly visit. I only wish we could emulate this regard for openness and interest in our conversations surrounding the censorship of books.
Maybe Free Little Libraries aren’t the solution, but they offer some hope toward a future where friends and families can find hidden gems and books they might not otherwise have selected themselves. The world could benefit from listening to the differing opinions and voices of not only our neighbors but people we might not encounter in our daily lives.
I think I have always been drawn to libraries and second-hand bookstores because of the knowledge that so many people have physically held those same pages. It makes what is otherwise a solitary experience feel both collaborative and compassionate. Perhaps reading is the first part, but the dialogue which follows can feel just as powerful. This point of interconnectedness can only happen if one decides to turn the page.
Elizabeth Prater is a Junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and program of liberal studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics & literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends, and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out firstname.lastname@example.org or @elizabethlianap on Twitter