A New Role for Little Free Libraries

“Time in the city is usually taken up running around positioning oneself around this narrative of the normal. But the pandemic situates you in waiting. So much waiting, you gain clarity. You listen more attentively, more anxiously.”

—Dionne Brand, On narrative, reckoning and the calculus of living and dying

I believe this is true; during this pandemic, we are listening a little more attentively, more diligently, perhaps even more sincerely, at the issues that affect our communities. For many, this attention brings painful reminders or a new understanding of the many injustices surrounding us, which can be debilitating. But paying attention has also prompted people to take action. A “small” movement that has taken place during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the redirection of some little free libraries into pantries. The number of people converting their little libraries into spaces to share household items, food, and personal care items is so large that Little Free Library has created a space within their website with a new map to list “sharing-box” locations. Sharing boxes do not need to be a registered Little Free Library to be on the map. The map is open to anyone offering food, household items, or crafts in a sharing box in their neighborhood.

Browsing little libraries on social media, I found Stephanie Swane from Ballard Elks Craft Market in Seattle. The top shelf of their lovely library is stocked with books, and in the lower one, people are leaving canned foods. There is also a plant stand underneath the library with young lettuce, tomato, and other fruits and vegetables ready to plant. Stephanie shared that she “added the pantry to help neighbors who might not be able to head to a store since we don’t have anything close by and also for people who might not have money due to the massive layoffs that happened in Seattle. … It’s been a great way to give back to my community and hopefully help someone in need.”

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Swing by for organic tomato starts this weekend! $3 each for a 4” pot – a lovely Roma size red tomato good for pots or in your garden. Available 10am-3pm Sat & Sun #tomato #farmstand #littlelibrary #plantsale

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In Moravia, New York, MRay and Dad’s Kitchen created a design that incorporates both a little library and a pantry. It has two doors at the top and two at the bottom. The top reads “Free Library” and the bottom, “Free Pantry.” One of the owners, Matthew Rejman, shared that they own a construction company, which allows them to reuse items to build these sharing spaces. If the little pantry is received well, they plan to use materials salvaged from job sites to build more little library/pantries and offer them for free to be placed at various locations. “Not only has the pandemic increased many families need for assistance, but it has also distanced us and made many people feel alone … We felt the library would be great for the local kids, … teach them a sense of community and how great it feels to put a few books in for others to enjoy. The pantry we hope will help our neighbors as well as show them that we are stronger together,” said Matthew.

In 2016, Jessica McClard launched the grassroots Mini Pantry Movement in Fayetteville, Arkansas, “a wooden box on a post containing food, personal care, and paper items accessible to everyone all the time no questions asked.” According to The Mini Pantry Movement’s website, “In late April, a large national survey found that more than 17% of mothers reported their children under 12 were not getting enough to eat because the family couldn’t afford food—a more than 400% increase from when the government last measured hunger rates in 2018.” Jessica shared with us that “[i]t seems appropriate that Little Free Libraries, a concept built on sharing, are now literally sharing space with food, personal care, and paper items. There are over 100,000 Little Free Libraries globally, and I am grateful for the pre-existence of this infrastructure, now nourishing minds and bodies at a time when so many more folks are in need.” She added that “With physical distance built-in, they [mini pantries] create space for simple but important acts of mutual aid and are easy to execute on the fly.”

The movement to use small spaces to share needed goods has spread around the world. In Bangkok, these community pantries are known as “Pantries of Sharing.” In May of this year, The Bangkok Post reported that pantries of sharing had been set up in at least 51 provinces. Typical items inside the pantries include rice, fruit juice, milk, eggs, instant noodles, and water.

In most cases, books are still be found in these community spaces, sharing shelves with canned tomatoes, bottles with disinfectant, and mac & cheese. In their March 30 presentation, Dr. Berendes of the CDC said: “For paper-based products, we’re really not concerned, and you don’t have to worry about finding ways to disinfect those materials,” which encouraged people who already had community libraries to continue stocking the shelves.

Not only do these sharing spaces provide relief with needed essential goods accessible to the community, but they give us a sense of connection to our community. A few years ago, my husband built a neighborhood little library. My son and I painted it with bright colors and placed it on our front yard. There is constant movement on its shelves with books that come and go, but in March, as soon our city received recommendations to shelter at home, the traveling of books stopped. For weeks I checked and saw the same books, unmoved, accumulating dust. It wasn’t until mid-April that books started to wander through the neighborhood again. There was one day when I saw a young woman arrive at our little library skating. She pulled a couple of books from a backpack and spent some time looking at the titles. She placed a new book on her bag, adjusted her headphones, and rolled away. Another day, a friend stopped by with her children while I was watering plants in the front yard. While they browsed the books, my son was able to say hi to his friends from across the yard. We joked about the feeling of being the only ones still sheltering at home. A couple of people who visit our little library often, shared that coming by to check for new books, has given them a place to walk to when their favorite places are closed due to the pandemic.

In the description of their group, the Mini Pantry Movement writes, “We are not an organization. We are not a nonprofit. Like you, we are neighbors with jobs, families…responsibilities; we don’t have a lot of time, and our budgets are nearly maxed. But we see our neighbors’ daily struggles and feel called to do something in a way that reflects our shared values—compassion, generosity, and trust.”

In a time of waiting, there is an opportunity for contemplation that can bring clarity to others’ struggles. This is a good time to build and offer help, even if it is from a distance, through a small door.