BELFAST, Maine — A few years ago, Tim Hughes of Belfast came across a small, free outdoor library while visiting California, and he was smitten.
“I thought, that’s a cool idea,” he remembered, and he decided to start his own free library back home.
After finding an old artillery box at Liberty Tool, filling it with books and putting it outside his house on the corner of Spring and Cross streets in downtown Belfast, he and his wife, Cris Hughes, sat back and waited to see what would happen. It didn’t take long for the community to notice his box of books, he said.
“People love it, actually,” he said. “It’s really fun. People stop by and peruse the books. There’s a notebook, and people leave us little notes, so it’s fun. It’s totally free, and it’s a little tiny service there.”
Hughes didn’t realize at first that his small box of free books fits right into a movement that is growing around the state, the nation and even the world. It’s hard to know exactly where it began, but a Wisconsin man in 2009 built a model of a one-room schoolhouse, filled it with books and put it on a post in his front yard. Todd Bol’s schoolhouse book box was the beginning of the official Little Free Library movement, which aims to promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide.
The grass-roots effort is clearly catching on. As of this June, there were 40,000 registered Little Free Library book exchanges in all 50 states and in over 70 countries. In Maine, there are official Little Free Libraries all over, from Stockholm to York and from Eastport to Mount Vernon. Bangor has six registered libraries, including ones located close to Hayford Park, Broadway Park and in other downtown locales.
“We have a lot of people pass by our street, and we thought this would be a good way to get people to read and come together as a community,” Alisa Roberts, who maintains the Little Free Library on Cottage Street in Bangor, wrote on the official map.
Old Town has just one registered Little Free Library located on Woodland Avenue, close to Pushaw Lake. The wooden structure was built by the children of a woman who was an avid reader who died a few years ago. They wanted to find a way to honor her memory and stumbled upon an article about the libraries in an issue of Parade Magazine.
“We decided that would provide the perfect vehicle to keep her memory alive,” her children wrote on the official map to the libraries.
Waldo County has no official, registered book exchanges, but sharp-eyed residents may have noticed more small and sometimes whimsical library boxes popping up around the region. Thanks to an effort by the Literacy Volunteers of Waldo County, there are free library boxes located on Bridge Street in Belfast, at the Belfast Transfer Station and at Swan Lake Grocery in Swan Lake. More will be coming soon, according to Denise Pendleton, the coordinator of the local Literacy Volunteers group.
“A volunteer said, ‘I have more books than I know what to do with,’” she said, adding that someone in the group knew about the free library on Spring Street and about the international movement.
And so they decided to start building little libraries of their own.
“Some folks who are not serious readers might feel intimidated by going into a public library,” Pendleton said. “For these, you don’t have to get a library card. You can be a resident from anywhere and use the library. And even though the slogan is ‘take a book, leave a book,’ you don’t have to leave a book right then and there.”
The local program is called the WaldoReads Little Library, she said, and each library has a volunteer steward who checks it every week to make sure there are enough books, that it’s in good shape and that it’s well cared for.
Volunteer Wendy Kasten is in charge of the little library on Spring Street. On a recent foggy morning she checked it, pulling out an art textbook that hadn’t moved in several weeks and replacing it with different selections.
“It’s getting a lot of use,” she said of the library. “We thought probably no one was going to use it in the middle of winter, but they did.”