There are more than 90,000 Little Free Libraries in the United States and around the world. These little boxes that typically appear on top of a post in a neighborhood began appearing in 2009, the brainchild of Todd Bol, who began his effort in Wisconsin. Little Free Libraries became an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2012. Bol died six years later, but the libraries live on.
These little containers are meant as a vehicle for people to share books. The builder of the library stocks the library after it’s built and then people take and leave as they see fit. The builder, whom Little Free Library calls a “steward,” can curate the collection, restock when inventory gets low, or remove books that don’t seem to attract the interest of borrowers. The steward acts as a curator. There are no rules about how or what to curate. The goal is to share books.
Occasionally, the Little Free Library nonprofit will encourage stewards to engage in a particular effort. During the first week of October, for example, during Banned Books Week, the nonprofit put out a call encouraging stewards to include at least one banned book.
But mostly, these collections take on a personality of their own, defined mostly by those who happen to borrow and give books.
One steward recently asked my opinion about whether it was OK to pull books from her Little Free Library she might find objectionable. No title had appeared yet raising concern, but her question was piqued after seeing that someone had left a copy of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and writer, Thích Nhất Hạnh. Hanh who died in 2022 has written more than 100 books. Some of his most popular are “Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life” and “The Art of Living.” (His short “How to Fight” is a good read as well, as are others.
It was a copy of the 20th anniversary edition of “Living Buddha, Living Christ” that raised the curator’s curiosity. While she is an opponent of banning any books, she does not want her library to become a collection of religious books, particularly the type of religious tracts that are sometimes left in her mailbox. The curator would like to know the best way to proceed.
It’s her library, so she gets to make any rules she wants to make about what to keep in the library and what not to keep. But if she is truly an opponent of banning books, then it strikes me that the right thing to do is to continue running her library how she told me she always has run it.
She makes sure the library is well stocked and easy for passersby to access. She removes any copies of books that appear to be waterlogged, ripped or otherwise damaged. She adds books when inventory seems low and removes books if her library is getting too crowded. But she also removes books from her library that don’t seem to attract any interest after a month or two. Part of the joy of having the library is the activity it creates among neighborhood readers.
If her library is overrun by religious tracts after someone has removed all the books, then she would be right to restock. But if one book appears that seems like it might not be her cup of tea, then the right thing might be to let circulation take its course.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter @jseglin