In 2009, Todd Bol put a small wooden box in front of his Hudson, Wisconsin, home and unwittingly started a movement. Bol, who died Thursday at age 62, filled the box—shaped like a one-room schoolhouse in honor of his late teacher mother, who had loved reading—with books. He encouraged his neighbors to borrow a book or leave a book. And so the Little Free Library movement was born.
Over the ensuing decade, word of Little Free Libraries spread on the Internet. They quickly spread across the globe; they’re reportedly to be found in more than 80 countries now. 75,000 are registered on the Little Free Library website. Bol operated a Little Free Library non-profit, which tracks them and provides support. “It’s weird to be an international phenomenon,” he told the Associated Press in 2012.
You encounter Little Free Libraries in the predictable precincts, of course: The heavily educated quarters of upper northwest Washington, D.C., are chock full of them. But they’re not at all exclusively the province of the Bobos: I’ve run across them in suburban San Antonio and working class parts of Rhode Island, too.
Little Free Libraries have not strayed from Bol’s original design: They’re almost always a simple schoolhouse-shaped box set atop a wooden post, and they tend to hold 20 to 100 books at a time. They’ve proven a remarkable success and demonstration of the capabilities of human cooperation. They’re rarely vandalized or robbed. And the ones I’ve encountered often house a pretty darn decent selection of books.
It’s perhaps fitting that Little Free Libraries took off in the United States in the midst of the Great Recession. When state and local governments were hammered by collapsing tax receipts at the end of the last decade, they often took an axe to library funding. California ended state funding for libraries altogether. So did Louisiana. The city of Dallas cut its library budget in half. Those budget cuts typically resulted in severely curtailed opening hours, making it more difficult to access their collections. (The irony is demand for libraries spiked during the same period.)
But in the place of public libraries, Little Free Libraries rose: a clear demonstration of citizens stepping in where the state had failed. Little Free Libraries—or Little Platoons?
Bol died after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. But his legacy will live on—in 75,000, and counting, places.