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The Little Free Library: Part 2

January 28, 2014

I never imagined that writing about the little book shed recently at a nearby bustop on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University would result in finding a heartwarming backstory. Last week I sat down and interviewed the shed’s builder, which I’ll get to in a second.

I called it a shed because it reminded me of one and I didn’t know what to call it; one website called them “dollhouses for books.” After I wrote about the one on the EMU campus, people commenting on my Facebook page or here on the blog such as Claire DeBerg told me there is a whole string of “Little Free Libraries” as they are properly called. (Earlier I didn’t know what to search for online.) But the first one was build in 2009 in Wisconsin by Todd Bol, who made it as a one room schoolhouse as a tribute to his mother who was a teacher. I immediately thought of the little one room schoolhouse my own father built—a model of “Poynter School” in Indiana, which my mother still has. An avid dollhouse and toy barn builder, how Dad would have taken to building little libraries!

But the concept is quickly spreading across North America and around the world (with hundreds of stories in the media. Where have I been?)* People can take a book or leave a book at an outside small receptacle (people build them in all sorts of creative styles). There are no due dates, no fines.

P1040893Lee Jankowski

The builder of that little library at EMU is Lee Jankowski, a brick mason for 35 years. Over the years, Lee has also donated his labor weeks or months at a time at various homeless shelter/Catholic Worker houses. The Catholic Worker house/movement as founded by Dorothy Day is a simple living community where all live off of what is donated each day—in other words, they scrape by. There is usually no extra money for house repair or hiring professional labor to fix things.

So Lee would contact a house, bring his tools, and show up and say “What needs to be done here?”

While working at one such home in Duluth, Minnesota, he came across the “Little Free Libraries.” He loved reading, loved the concept of sharing books freely especially for those without ready access, and built and launched two Little Libraries in Duluth near homeless shelters.


So how did Lee get to EMU? Last fall he enrolled in EMU’s graduate school in counseling (after 35 years out of school), which he choose out of Google searches for a program where “your soul is considered,” he noted. He wanted a program that had an emphasis on experiential and person-centered learning.

Lee had always enjoyed talking and hanging out with those in the shelters as he worked, and had decided to seek training and a degree in counseling. Then his father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, and the plan to go to grad school was put on the back burner as he helped care for his father until he died last year. As Lee resumed a search for grad school, EMU was really the only place he found expressing the values he was looking for.

After a few weeks on campus he started asking around to see whether he could build one of the Little Free Libraries. “No one quite knew who to ask,” Lee recalls. But Eldon Kurtz, Director of Physical Plant at EMU, contacted the EMU library. They didn’t have a problem with it so Eldon gave Lee permission to move forward, including giving him access to the EMU shop, tools, Plexiglas for a see-through door, and a pressure treated post from Eldon’s own supply of leftovers at home. Lee also bought a broken bag of shingles at a discount, a sliding door handle at a thrift shop, and one store donated odds and ends of lumber.


Lee restocks about once a week from books he buys in local thrift stores (one store offers a whole bag of books for $5, he says). He peruses the books to make sure they are fitting and tries to supply an array including some for children. “It takes about 3-4 months before other people start leaving books,” he says.


Is vandalism a problem? When he first asked the homeless shelter in Duluth about permission to construct a library there, the first response was, “It won’t last the night.” But, Lee says, no one ever touched it [to deface it] and people have really embraced and used it.” I did find at least one story where a little library was burned but the local community quickly rallied to rebuild it.

Lee’s goal in the EMU graduate program is to go into hospice work, out of his father’s wrenching experience with that difficult form of cancer. Thus Lee is currently during a practicum at a local retirement community, Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community, in order to work among the elderly. For income he works for a local security company on weekends.

Lee is allowing his story to be shared as a seed for others. Which is pretty cool. Of course, many stores, libraries, coffee shops, professional offices, and churches have their own free library boxes or shelves–it doesn’t have to be a cute little shed.


Thanks, Lee, and thanks EMU (my alma mater), for allowing this story to be told.

More on the Little Free Libraries

A children’s book is forthcoming about Little Free Libraries.

And here are some cool audio blips promoting the Little Free Libraries.

* Little Free Libraries (LFL), once it got organized, set a goal of building 2,509 free libraries in honor of Andrew Carnegie’s build of 2509 free libraries around the U.S. at the beginning of the 1900s.  The LFL goal was reached in August of 2012, and by this January 2014, the website estimated there are between 10-12,000 registered Little Free Libraries, with more built all the time.

The EMU Little Library is not yet registered with the Little Free Library website and mapping system because, according to Lee, you need to send in a photo of people using it etc. which is a few more hoops to jump through (camera, loading it onto a computer etc.) than he wants and as you might expect he is not out for the publicity but warmly agreed to an interview to inspire others.

A version of this will appear in my syndicated newspaper column Another Way, in a few weeks.


From → Faith, Family Life

  1. This is a wonderful bit of inspiration. Thanks Melodie and thanks Lee. There is a woman in Minneapolis, Margret Aldrich, who is at work on a book about Little Free Libraries forthcoming from Coffee House Press. I’m excited to read her book (and the children’s book you mentioned). Thanks for the shoutout, too :).

    • Glad you found the follow up! Thanks for letting me know about the other book, fascinating. I was intrigued that the “movement” if you want to call it that is so recent.

  2. This is a beautiful article — I love reading the stories of the people who are motivated to do this kind of work. I was inspired this week to create a map showing the little libraries in Harrisonburg, some of which are formally Little Free Libraries, and some of which aren’t. It’s really cool to see the excitement people have been showing around this on Facebook, too. Thanks so much for sharing the story of this Little Library!

    You can find the map and some background info here:

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