On rare occasions, I manage to get off our property - and this week, I have proof! My wife and I have put together a Little Neighborhood Library, which is almost exactly like a Little Free Library, except $40 cheaper and not listed on the LFL website.
And you should build one for your neighborhood! Or, at least, a useful neighborhood near you.
Little libraries (or public bookshelves) are a fairly recent concept, but I’m a huge fan of them. Take a book, leave a book - and, possibly, other things (depending on the neighborhood and needs). You can leave cold weather clothing in them for local use, you can leave cans of food in them (somewhat common around here), you can leave local neighborhood information and events… just about anything! I’ve even seen (to my great surprise) an unscratched lottery ticket left in ours.
The one we put up isn’t actually in our neighborhood, though. We live out in rural farm country (it is most certainly not ”the middle of nowhere” as some people think, though we have a spectacular view of that sort of place), and there’s not a good spot for a little library. There’s basically zero pedestrian traffic, and even though there’s a place to pull off for mail, it’s not a great spot for a library - which means it wouldn’t get any real traffic.
This means “our” library is in downtown Nampa, at the building our church purchased (and massively renovated) in 2018 - the Involve Training Center. It’s right off the end of downtown, in a residential neighborhood, and has plenty of foot traffic. The library has been up for a few months now, and gets quite a bit of activity from both the youth group and people in the neighborhood, so it’s working as intended!
Why didn’t we pay the $40 and make it an official Little Free Library? Mostly because it would have doubled the cost of the project, and we didn’t see any huge benefits to having it listed. Those who are in the area will discover it, and those who aren’t… well, it’s a neighborhood library! Realistically, there’s a lot of pedestrian activity in that neighborhood, and so far, it’s been getting good use despite not being registered. If I wanted, I could always register it later (or if someone felt strongly about it, they could donate a registration), but for now, this works great!
Building or Buying a Bookshelf
The core element of a little library is a bookshelf of some sort. I’ve seen a few different varieties over the years, but a key element, as far as I’m concerned, is having good doors on the bookshelf. I’ve lived near one that didn’t have doors, and the frequent rain in that area ruined books on a regular basis. I’m not interested in a book-ruining-shelf, so buy or build something that has doors, and see if you can put it under cover somehow. Most bookshelves aren’t actually suited to outdoor use, because they don’t have doors.
You could add doors to a bookshelf (which sounds like fun), build yourself a custom bookshelf (which, for the right person, is probably the most fun option), or you can find something that has doors to start with. Pay attention to your local thrift stores, because you’ll probably find something amazing for not very much money. My wife had been looking around for a month or two as she was shopping various places, and eventually found something nearly perfect - an old hutch, with good doors, in good shape, for a mere $30! It has several shelves that are well spaced for books, and it has good doors to protect the books. Plus, we knew it would be in a covered space.
If the doors don’t stay particularly well closed, consider adding some magnetic latches. They’ll help keep the doors from flapping around in the wind, if you get a lot of wind. If the hinges are stiff enough, then there’s no problem, and if you’re building it, just use good hinges that take a stiff tug to open and it should be fine.
I considered painting the bookcase with a good outdoor paint before installing it, but ours is well protected on the steps, so it doesn’t take much in the way of rain or direct sun. I’m just keeping an eye on it - if the finish starts to wear badly from being outside, I’ll take a weekend and sand/paint it. For now, I’m Harbor Freighting it - use the cheap option until it’s evident the cheap option doesn’t work, and then rethink. It works well for an awful lot of things, and overall, I think it saves money over the long run, even if you do buy a few things multiple times. By the time the cheap one wears out, you know you’ll get enough use out of an expensive one to justify the cost.
Any good library needs a good sign - and the little ones are no exception.
I built a sign out of scrap lumber I had laying around (I try to keep scrap lumber for projects like this) - and then painted it, because it’ll be outside.
A set of 2x6s for the front and some 2x4s in the back created a very, very strong sign that’s, as I prefer, totally and completely overkill.
I can paint large surfaces, but I don’t do decorative painting. That’s my wife’s territory. Were I to do the sign again, I might consider using 1x6s for the front - the whole thing is very, very heavy. The screw on top is an unfinished screw that came out of the box while assembling the sign - it has a head, but no threads on it. My daughter was fascinated with this, we watched several videos on how screws are made as a result, and she probably still has it around somewhere…
A bit of lettering and paint later, the sign is done. I haven’t used any clearcoat on top, simply because I don’t think it will be needed with the location. For a heavily exposed sign, absolutely spend the time on a layer or two of clearcoat for additional protection.
Setting it All Up
I was getting tired of hauling the bookshelf around in the back of my truck, so I eventually got around to setting the whole thing up. This is our bookshelf - probably not intended as a bookshelf, but it has nice doors. A bit of shimming got it to stop rocking (the porch isn’t exactly flat), and it’s ready for a sign and books!
I carefully measured the width for the sign - and totally missed the fact that the edges are ever so slightly higher than the top. This interfered with the intended sign mounting method, so I had to adjust things a bit - I slid the back legs down slightly relative to the front sign boards. Pay attention to your bookshelf when designing the sign and you can avoid last minute redesign. Fortunately, I brought the tools to make tweaks while onsite!
I hate taking drills to nice looking furniture, but it seemed the best way to install the sign. The top is pretty thick (at least half an inch), so I simply ran some screws up through the top and into the sign. It’s something to look for in a bookshelf - thick top wood makes adding signs easier.
Some 3” screws later, and I had everything connected together in a very, very secure manner!
I’d actually built some diagonal supports (thinking the top was thinner wood), but they turned out to be not needed - the sign didn’t budge without them, so there was no point in installing them. I should have worked that out beforehand - they were a pain to paint, because they don’t sit flat.
Populating the Library
This part is simple: put books in. If you don’t have enough spare books, go to thrift shops and find books. Or ask for donations. Seriously, just throw some books in. We’ve got a wide variety of literature in here, including a few Bibles (it’s in front of a church - of course it’s going to have Bibles!).
We added a sign explaining how the whole process worked, just in case people weren’t familiar with it. These aren’t the most common things in our corner of the world, so it’s worth explaining that, yes, you can simply take a book to read!
We’ve also put some cold weather gear (hats, gloves, etc) in the bottom, though this winter hasn’t been particular cold compared to previous years. When the weather warms up with lows above freezing, I’m going to borrow an idea from another local church with one of these and put some canned (and boxed) mostly-ready-to-eat food in the bottom. This is something we plan to keep stocked out of our budget, which does imply some more frequent Costco runs and perhaps a bit more coupon hunting.
Why not? My wife and I both love reading, and it’s something we like to encourage. Plus, a place to share books you’re done with encourages a “Read it and pass it on” approach to books - which, I admit, is somewhat at odds with my desire to collect books after I read them. I’m working on it. But, on the flip side, I’ve had to move a lot of books many times (both my collection and helping other people move), and they don’t do too many people much good just sitting on shelves.
I may put a bulletin board on the side at some point as well - just a small corkboard with some pins for people to post local events or cards. Living out in Idaho, these are still a common way of finding out about events.
As for the winter gear and canned food, it’s a very direct way to help out with needs in the local community, and I’m pretty comfortable with the administrative overhead percentage on that (since we take things when we’re heading that way anyway, a whopping 0%). I’m not even taking a salary from this little non-profit operation!
Check it Out!
If you happen to find yourself in downtown Nampa, check out the little library at the corner of 17th & 3rd - it’s at the Involve Training Center for Leadership & Ministry Development.
And if you’re in the area and looking for a church, Involve Church meets at 10:30 on Sundays, at Snake River Elementary - despite owning a church building. We’re too big a church to meet in the sanctuary of this building, so we still meet at a school. This building has been a huge project, but a lot of fun!
So put in your own little library and see what happens!