This summer, I became fascinated with small free libraries. For those who don’t know, it is the official organization that encourages residential neighborhoods to create and install community libraries. They operate under the implicit regulation of take one book and leave one back.
This fascination started when I decided to sort through my library and purge some books that I realized I would never read again (I’m looking at you, dystopian trilogies for young adults). My local library stopped taking donations and I knew the books weren’t worth much to resell to an independent used bookstore. So, I turned to the little free libraries that I grew up walking past but hadn’t given much thought to.
I soon discovered that Free Little Libraries had an app with geomarkers to locate them in your local areas. The owners of these share the names of their libraries and sometimes the reason why they decided to build one. Some in my area were strategically placed near elementary schools, and donations from owners focused on children’s literature to help educate young readers. Others included memorials bearing the name of a loved one who inspired their love for literature.
Some small free libraries had “Alice in Wonderland” quotes stenciled on the sides, faux roof panels, and even benches installed so neighbors could even take advantage of the open-air library offerings.
I took the time to explore the neighborhoods while carrying a box of my own books to share. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the variety of things people have placed in the little free bookcases, and I’ve even found books I’d consider buying from a bookstore.
After this experience, I thought about the importance and implications of small free libraries. The concept of intellectual freedom, even in the literary sense, is not always a guarantee. The most convincing indication of this restriction is the presence of the “Forbidden Books Week”.
Launched in 1982, Banned Books Week was created in response to the growing number of book challenges in libraries, schools and even bookstores. This year, the awareness week takes place from September 18 to 24 with the theme “Books unite us. Censorship divides us.
There has been a lull in book challenges during the pandemic, but over the past year, as schools have reopened since fall 2021 following COVID-19 closures, the volumes of objections have increase quickly. The American Library Association, which tracks book bans and challenges, typically faces 300 to 350 complaints a year. However, in 2021 alone, they reached around 730 complaints against over £1500.
Books have been banned on numerous accounts, with protests ranging from books said to include explicit language, sexual references, themes involving racism, gender identity, violence, and more. Some commonly banned books include many classics such as Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and a growing number of contemporary novels.
Although many of these challenges to books are intended to inhibit the spread of its content, they often do the exact opposite. Publicity surrounding banned books often increases and sales are stimulated.
Many bookstores even organize displays and list challenges for commonly challenged books. Powell’s Bookstore, the “world’s largest independent bookstore”, distributes bookmarks throughout the year with book recommendations with titles selected from the banned books list.
I spoke on the phone to Philip Schatz, the owner of “Erasmus Books” in South Bend, to get a South Bend-area independent bookstore’s perspective on Banned Books Week.
“Some people hope that if they really structure a collection, like in a library, they can shield people from unpleasant experiences and growth,” Philip explained. “And I think that’s a very natural desire. But fatal.
While many complaints are filed, sometimes the main decision makers are not the librarians themselves, who know their personal collections and offerings well. Instead, much of the debate is fueled by parents and even lawmakers, who may be fueled by the implications of book bans in the two-party system.
“Let 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 interests to promote readership,” Philip said. “They do it in a more informed way than lawmakers have time to do.”
There have been many punitive consequences for institutions that continue to support books that have been the subject of controversy. Some organizations have seen their funding cut and librarians even lost their jobs. Brooky Parks, a librarian at the Erie Community Library in Colorado, was fired because she selected book titles for the teen book club that discussed pressing race issues in America. The violation was filed by the Library District and claimed the meetings were an attempt to “persuade attendees of a particular point of view” and were “intentionally inflammatory.”
While libraries are meant to be a place to engage in diverse experiences and engage in open dialogues, they are constantly bounded by an abundance of regulations. Many of these restrictions are rooted in public outcry based on hot topics or troubling realities, rather than genuine concern for reader development.
Although there is no clear solution to literature censorship, I am drawn to the small free libraries that I found myself browsing through the summer. I revisited week after week to find that most of the titles were completely different and were still in constant use. With such a free and open resource, I expected a “tragedy of the commons” type situation. But what is no more than a box with one or two shelves has become a welcoming place of intellectual curiosity and freedom.
I was surprised at how carefully these little free libraries were taken care of, as the books were always in excellent condition and there seemed to be a buzz of excitement whenever a neighbor made a weekly visit. I only wish we could emulate this concern for openness and interest in our conversations surrounding book censorship.
Maybe free little libraries aren’t the answer, but they offer some hope for a future where friends and families can find hidden treasures and books they might not have chosen. themselves otherwise. The world could benefit from hearing the differing opinions and voices not only of our neighbors, but also of people we may not meet in our daily lives.
I think I’ve always been drawn to used libraries and bookstores because so many people have physically held those same pages. It makes what is otherwise a solitary experience both collaborative and compassionate. Maybe the reading is the first part, but the dialogue that follows can feel just as powerful. This point of interconnection can only occur if one decides to turn the page.
Elizabeth Prater is a Junior at Notre Dame with a double major in Marketing and Liberal Studies (Big Books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics and literature from a contemporary perspective. When she’s not writing, she enjoys playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends, and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so please don’t hesitate to contact us. [email protected] or @elizabethlianap on Twitter