Little libraries make a big impact

With a little bit of effort and diligence, book lovers across greater Cincinnati can now run their own little libraries for free.

Through a grant, the Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati just received 50 Little Free Libraries, which encourage the free exchange of books through easily accessible, mounted boxes in neighborhoods. Started in Wisconsin in 2009, the program now has 75,000 neighborhood book exchange locations across 88 countries.

This is neighborhood building at its most grassroots level. Even before the Literacy Network decided at the end of last year to get involved in the initiative, more than 60 Little Free Libraries existed across greater Cincinnati.

The Literacy Network wasn’t sure how well the concept aligned with its strategic goals, but began to see the opportunities when they talked with stewards who were already caring for their own libraries.

“We always have a surplus of books and these are the perfect little conduit to get them to kids because it can reach them in the summer, they can get to them in the evening, and it is just much more accessible,” says Michelle Otten Guenther, the president of the Literacy Network.

“When I talked to current stewards that created their libraries on their own, they all had these great stories of how they were seeing kids visit that have never been to a library, or that might not know their address to apply for a library card, or the public library is not someplace they were familiar with,” Otten Guenther says. “For a kid, it might be kind of daunting to go into a library to get that card and it may be they’re not going to go through that process.”

Of course, Cincinnati and Hamilton County are served by one of the nation’s busiest public library systems, but from the perspective of the Literacy Network, every chance to showcase the power of reading is a chance worth taking. Across the eight counties the Literacy Network serves in Greater Cincinnati, it is estimated there are 400,000 illiterate people

Otten Guenther is particularly motivated when she sees startling statistics that show that low-income neighborhoods average one age-appropriate book for every 300 children in the community, and that 61 percent of low-income families have no books in their residence. A big key to reducing the rate of adult illiteracy is to spark interest in reading in at-risk children.


Children will be able to decorate Little Free Libraries in their communities.For that reason, the Literacy Network hopes to place all 50 of its new libraries in low-income neighborhoods. Six existing Little Free Libraries have been established around Over-The-Rhine, according to the guide map on the Little Free Library home page, but only one in all of Avondale. It’s even bleaker on the west side, with no Little Free Libraries anywhere in the zone running from south of Harrison Avenue and east of Covedale, all the way down to the Ohio River.

A newly forged partnership with the Cincinnati Recreation Commission will be the first step in changing that. The CRC has agreed to place libraries in all 23 of their neighborhood recreation centers, with nine coming immediately in the first wave. Each library box will be blue with the Literacy Network logo on the sides and directions on how to use the library above the door, but otherwise, each rec center is being encouraged to get neighborhood kids involved in decorating the library in a way that reflects their local community.

Those who become stewards of their own libraries need to be willing to keep an eye on them and let the Literacy Network know if they need more books or if any kind of vandalism happens that needs to be addressed.

The first of the 50 new free libraries is set to be unveiled on Sept. 19 at 4 p.m. in the West End at the home of Jason Shorten, a member of the Literacy Network’s board.

The founder of the Little Free Library program, Todd Bol, personally drove the 50 new libraries down to Cincinnati, and a group of student volunteers from Elder High School helped get them unloaded and stored. According to Bol, in most areas, libraries first appear in more upscale communities, and then word of the program spreads.

“We really serve children and adults who are not in affluent neighborhoods,” says Otten Guenther. “We get free books all the time from book drives, and then we go and deliver them to schools and Boys and Girls Clubs, and the kids are so excited to get these books. But when we thought about it, we thought that we can still do those things, but this would be one more way we can get those books out there.”

If you are interested in being a steward for a Little Free Library for your own neighborhood, visit the Literacy Network’s application page.



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Read more articles by Carey Hoffman.

As a Cincinnatian for almost all his life, Carey Hoffman has written about numerous subjects involving almost every Greater Cincinnati neighborhood. He enjoys history — both local and beyond — reading, anything to do with golf, most things related to basketball, and all things that make Cincinnati a more interesting and better place.