Every morning, I walk past a little library. I have been doing this for the past 2 years. When it first started there was an excited sense of discovery. I found lovely books on a daily basis. I scored 2 Julia Quinn books, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s biography, complete box sets of M*A*S*H, Darren Shan (autographed!!!!). In return, I would place much loved doubles and clean new books that I did not have the time to read.
Last year, this little library was so popular that many in the community would leave all their books, whether they fit in the box or not. AT first , they were still interesting and new. But slowly, the selections became less appealing, the books much older, much tattier. They looked less like books one wants to share and more like books that have sat on a shelf, unread, unloved, faded, dusty, musty and booklice ridden. They made me itch.
This morning, I walked past the little library which has now been in its place for more than two years. I see it daily. It leans heavily. I rarely open it. Today I had a book I intended to leave in it. I opened the hatch. The books in it look like they have sat there for months on end. Unchosen. Unread. Unvetted. Last night it rained. A heavy soaking rain. The books in the little library looked sad. Damp at their edges, stacked without thought, crammed to fit as many as possible. At the foot of the little library lay a soaked, broken cardboard box. Old books strewn, pulpy, dank, saddened. On a closer look, even if they had not been drenched by our daily summer rains, none of these books held much appeal. Unremarkable university texts, aged – not in that beautiful way that old books can fill you with joy, but in that yellowed, coffee-marked, yeeros-splattered, 25th-reprint, I-would-never-take-this-filthy-to-touch-book-to-bed-with-me kind of way. Some resident must have been moving out and not knowing where to empty the books they did not want to take with them decided to will them to the community. I have no doubt that the lovely community that takes care of the little library I walk past daily will clean it up and, for a short while at least, interesting titles will reappear. But for today, I walked on. I didn’t leave my book. I continued to my work and left it on the staff table with a note “free to a readerly home”.
Little Libraries is a trend. It is a beautiful trend. Serendipitous book discovery. What has the person before me left for me to discover? This trend of a little library is the idea of crowdsourced book distribution, community reading and that only reading choices that are exciting will be shared. There is the mistaken idea that you are sharing and discovering in the books that others love. I hate to be a killjoy here but no-one gives away their most beloved books. They only give away the ones that did not resonate. The ones they did not enjoy, did not connect with. In hope, people donate these books to others rather than put them in a recycling bin. Librarians everywhere will attest to this statement. There is so much guilt associated with disposing books. I include myself in this group guilt accusation – I have only ever thrown books smeared in banana into a bin (another story altogether). There are cries – similar to those of your mother trying to get you to eat your overcooked cauliflower by reminding you of all the starving children in the world – that so many people would benefit from these discarded, unwanted grotty tomes. I disagree. I don’t think anyone will benefit from tattered, old books smeared with oil stains. If you are in such dismay about literacy provision, put your money on the table and buy exciting, new, clean, thrilling books to donate and not your dirty, pestridden ones.
In a little library, there is the mistaken idea that you are not restricted by a gatekeeper’s selections. This too is rubbish. There is always a gatekeeper. Anyone who has placed or taken an item out of a little library is a gatekeeper as they have already made purchase decisions that have impacted on what is placed in the library for others to take. It’s just that there is no official selection process guiding community gatekeepers. I have no problem with this – we do not need everything in our lives to be chosen against a checklist. It is the claim that there is no gatekeeper that I dispute. Try filling little libraries with religious, political or flat-earthers propaganda and I am sure that the unofficial community gatekeepers will start monitoring the content of their little libraries.
In theory, everyone in the community takes care of a little library. That there is no official caretaker or gatekeeper however has its downside. This discovery that a little library, does not need someone to care for it, tend to it, weed it, clean it, organise it appeals to those who search for ways to make cuts to strained budgets. If a little library can function on the goodwill of the community then a larger library can be run the same way too. But what happens when your library goes from being filled with interesting selections to being a dumping place for unappealing books sodden with rain.