Little Free Diverse Libraries: What They Are and How You Can Help
“Mommy, Hair Love inspires me to love my hair.”
Spontaneous, honest, and joyful expressions like this happen when kids recognize themselves in books. In this case, it happened when a girl and her mom visited a Little Free Diverse Library in Arlington, Massachusetts. If you haven’t yet encountered a Little Free Diverse Library (LFDL) in your neighborhood and are wondering what it is, it’s exactly what you think: a Little Free Library (LFL) dedicated to keeping books by BIPOC authors and about BIPOC stories in its collection.
Little Free Libraries have been beloved by avid readers since they first started popping up more than a decade ago. We love spotting the charming, wooden boxes at parks, on walking trails, in front yards, and other places in our cities. Not only is the idea of taking and leaving books a clever way for us to celebrate our love of reading and stories, but it’s also a way to connect with others. In fact, it’s become such a significant part of many readers’ lives that we’ve accumulated a trove of posts specifically about Little Free Libraries here at Book Riot.
But there are ways to improve on even the things we love most — especially when you take some time to truly examine them. When it comes to Little Free Libraries, it’s time for us to ask ourselves if we’re truly celebrating all stories and if we’re making our best effort to connect with all people. Research indicates that Little Free Libraries tend to be located in mid- to high-income neighborhoods whose residents are well-educated and overwhelmingly white.
Last spring, when lifelong book lover and NYC public school counselor Sarah Kamya strolled her predominantly white neighborhood, stopping to browse at the three Little Free Libraries she passes every day, she noticed something for the first time: a clear lack of books by BIPOC writers telling BIPOC stories. This, Kamya decided, was an issue she could do something about — and that’s when Little Free Diverse Libraries was born. Now the movement, which has spread all over the U.S. and to a handful of other countries, is rapidly growing and evolving every day.
So, how did Kamya grow Little Free Diverse Libraries into what it is today? Where does she hope to take it? And most importantly, how can we as readers get involved? In my search for answers, I reached out to founder Sarah Kamya as well as to several LFDL distributors and owners around the country to get their insight.
How Little Free Diverse Libraries Started
At the end of May 2020 in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, Kamya had an idea about how to use Little Free Libraries to help educate her community about Black perspectives. She began raising money to buy books by Black authors from Black-owned bookstores in order to diversify all of the LFLs in her town of Arlington, MA. She created an Instagram account (@littlefreediverselibraries) and an Amazon Wishlist and then began sending books to her friends in other cities and states, so they could diversify LFLs in their communities.
“I never expected LFDL to take off in the way it did, and at the speed that it did,” Kamya told me. “It felt like in one moment I was sitting at the table with my parents sharing my idea, and the next there were 500 books on my dining room table, and I was sending books to every Little Free Library in the United States.”
Because of the overwhelmingly supportive response, Kamya achieved her goal of sending diverse books to every LFL in the country in just two months. Soon, there were diversified Little Free Libraries in all 50 states, plus several Little Free Diverse Libraries “dedicated specifically to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) voices.”
Little Free Diverse Libraries Today
One year after Kamya started LFDL, it’s become a nonprofit organization, which she named Diverstories. “LFDL has impacted my life significantly,” Kamay told me. Not only has she had to learn to balance her full-time job as a counselor with running a nonprofit, but she can also “no longer go into bookstores without purchasing a book to put in a library” or “pass a Little Free Library and not stop to check out what books are inside.”
After working with more than 100 individuals and ten schools to add diverse literature to Little Free Libraries, Kamya has been able to connect more deeply both within her own community and with readers all over the country, and is amazed at “how spreading diverse books through Little Free Libraries can form such deep connections, thoughtful conversations, and inspiring stories.” One example that stands out to Kamya happened at Forest Hills High School in Queens, New York, which received a granted library from Kamya. I reached out to Lindsay Klemas (@fhhslibrary), the librarian at the school, who related her perspective on this story to me as well. Klemas held a LFDL opening ceremony to which she invited a handful of students she hadn’t seen in many months due to the pandemic. Klemas told me that one of the students she invited “had become very withdrawn” in a way that was derailing her path to graduation. “This event allowed them to get back on track and ultimately graduate.” To Sarah Kamya, that story confirms that “the Little Free Diverse Library project spans beyond what I ever imagined, and can touch people in so many ways.”
Kamya also enjoys watching everyday reactions at the LFDL at her house in Arlington. “I can look out and see when people are stopping by the library. It is always amazing to see the kids and families.” She also loves that her visitors take time to look through the books and discuss them. “They are able to teach lessons, and educate themselves right there in that moment.” Kamya told me.
Where Little Free Diverse Libraries Is Headed
Now that LFDL (Diverstories) is a nonprofit organization, Kamya has plans to expand her original vision. As a school counselor at a Title I school in New York City, Kamya understands “how important it is for students to not only see themselves in literature, but have access to quality diverse books.” So, one of the most important ways she plans to grow Diverstories is to implement Little Free Diverse Libraries inside and outside schools across the U.S. She’s planning to start in NYC, an area that, unlike many suburbs, has fewer than ten Little Free Libraries. “With more libraries,” she told me, “there is more access to literature, and one can form a greater love for reading.”
Kamya also plans to work with “community centers, organizations, hospitals, and companies, to broaden their collection of diverse literature.” Some of the ways she’d like to bring this vision to life are by distributing diverse reading material to waiting rooms and staff lounges as well as by providing suggestions for staff required reading.
As Diverstories continues to grow, Kamya would like to “curate book lists that people turn to throughout the year. I hope these book lists can inspire, educate, and celebrate diverse voices.” After all, Kamya told me, “There is always a place for diverse books.”
How You Can Get Involved in Little Free Diverse Libraries
If you’re feeling inspired to help Kamya bring diverse stories to your community through Little Free Libraries, there are several ways you can get involved:
- Donate money online. Your monetary gift will help Little Free Diverse Libraries collaborate with Black-owned bookstores, install LFDL at schools, send books to distributors, and more.
- Donate books through their Amazon Wishlist. Purchase from a collection of books curated by Kamya and they’ll be shipped directly to her, so she can distribute them to LFLs in Massachusetts and New York.
- Give 10% of your Bookshop purchase. Diverstories has its own store set up on Bookshop.com, the online store that supports indie book sellers. All you have to do is shop the site the next time you’re picking up books for yourself, friends, family, or even your own favorite LFL, and 10% of your purchase will automatically go to Diverstories.
Become a Distributor or LFDL Owner
- Become a distributor. If you’d like to stock LFL structures in your community or you want to build your own LFDL, you can fill out this Google form and LDFL will get in touch with you.
- Create a Little Free Diverse Library in your community. Construct and maintain your own box with LFDL’s guidance.
Apply for Your School or Organization to be Sponsored
If you’re part of a school or other organization and want to be sponsored by Diverstories, get more details by reaching out to them.
What You Can Expect As a Little Free Diverse Libraries Distributor or Owner
Like every worthwhile project, becoming an LFDL distributor and/or owner takes passion, dedication, and flexibility to navigate the challenges you may face on your way to realizing the rewards of this important work. I’ve asked a handful of current LFDL distributors and owners to share their experiences and advice.
Cost + Maintaining a Diverse Collection
Maintaining any Little Free Library may require more costs than you initially expect. Besides the cost of the structure, whether you purchase one from LFL or build your own, most LDFL distributors and owners told me they’ve had to spend some of their own money.
“The biggest challenge has been procuring inclusive books,” Sheila Frye (@littlefreediverselibrariesmtc), who owns an LFDL in Montclair, New Jersey and distributes regularly to other LFLs in her neighborhood, told me. “I will buy brand new books, but that becomes very expensive very quickly and is unsustainable in the long term.” Frye buys most of the books she stocks from thrift stores, but isn’t alway successful in finding the right books in good condition.
Even with the help of donated books, distributors still find themselves buying titles to keep their collections complete. Rachel Koppa (@littlefreediversedallas), who owns a LFDL and has distributed books to every LFL in Dallas, Texas, told me she consistently gets fewer books by and about Indigenous people and the LGBTQ+ community, so she usually fills in the gaps with her own purchases.
Casey Hitchcock (@littlegreenlibraryeugene), who’s owned her LDFL in Eugene, Oregon for more than a year, told me she sometimes struggles with maintaining an even mix of books. “[O]nly children’s picture books really move,” she told me. Even though she makes an effort to offer books for all ages — both fiction and nonfiction — her YA and adult books, she told me, “sit for months.”
Time + Skill Stretching
Many of the distributors have had to learn how to balance their LFDL work with their already full schedules. “It is a commitment for sure,” Kris Tym (@littlefreediverselibrarymke), an LFDL owner from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, told me. Erica Yu (@littlefreediverselibrariesgta), an owner and distributor for the Greater Toronto Area in Ontario, explains that “[t]here is a lot of work that goes on ‘behind the scenes’ as a LFDL distributor — sourcing books, printing labels/bookmarks, finding and going to various Little Free Libraries, etc.” LFDL owners also need to maintain their structures. Yu mentioned inevitable roof and door repairs. Koppa told me that in the summer, she makes time to spray for ants and other insects.
Many distributors have also spent time developing new skills. “[F]inding new and creative ways to ask others to give can be a bit outside of my comfortable skillset,” Casey Taylor (@littlefreediverselibraryrva), a distributor in Richmond, Virginia, told me. “I didn’t expect to learn so much about social media, marketing, and soliciting.”
Even after distributors have figured out a schedule that works for them and have become experts at all the new tasks required of them, factors outside their control can still throw a wrench into their plans. For example, the weeklong snow and ice storm affecting Dallas in early 2021 slowed Koppa down. Unusual weather not only affects delivery schedules, but can also delay shipping to distributors who are responsible for taking books the final mile to their LFDL destinations.
Although all of the distributors have received positive responses, many of them have also gotten some negative feedback. Sometimes the criticisms are direct: Koppa told me about insulting comments and direct messages she’s received through her social media channels.
Other times, they’re more subtle. “I was surprised when an adult told me that they have been removing books from the LFDL that they don’t personally agree with,” Klemas, the Forest Hills High School librarian and LFDL owner, told me. Many of the distributors have discovered books disappearing in a suspicious manner. “Once,” Tym told me, “I was stunned to find every single book was gone despite having been full the day before.”
Despite all of the expected and unexpected challenges, the distributors told me their LDFL work is worth every setback. Yu emphasized that “if you believe in, and are passionate about something you will always find the time to make it happen.” Similarly, Frye told me, “This project is very important to me, so I will continue on.”
All of the LFDL owners and distributors I reached out to agreed that the rewards undoubtedly outweigh the challenges and were eager to share just a few of their positive experiences with me.
Sense of Community
Finding community is a common thread among the distributors’ experiences. Many of them mentioned how encouraging it’s been to connect with LFDL owners and other distributors under the leadership of Kamya. “Sarah has been so engaged and responsive, which we love, and it’s also really fun to see how other cities have embraced this mission,” Taylor told me. Yu has had a similar reaction to the connections she’s made with other distributors through social media: “It’s wonderful to see how far this project has expanded.”
Taylor has even connected with a couple of other LFDL owners in Richmond, VA (@southmill.little.library and @wellreadwaverton_lfl) to create RVA Diverse Books Collective “as a way to combine forces, ideas, and resources.” Together, they host themed book collections, including one for Earth Day and another forthcoming “Back to School” event.
Distributors are also strengthening relationships within their own families through LFDL. Koppa told me it’s been a great way for her to spend time with her son and “teach him how to give back and how to be part of something that was important.” Taylor, who has two daughters, echoed these sentiments, telling me, “this project grew from a need to show them how to turn big feelings of injustice and lack of inclusion into action.” She added that they read every book that was sent to them last summer and that the stories “spurred conversations that my husband and I may never have had the gumption or clout to begin on our own.”
Perhaps best of all, distributors are finding ways to connect with their communities at large. Koppa told me she’s enjoyed meeting new people as she’s traveled around town diversifying existing LFLs. Like Kamya, others are finding themselves constantly inspired by the people who visit their own LFDLs. Tym loves to see people peruse the collection in her LFDL. “So many people have stopped by to say how much they like the LFDL or express their gratitude that the LFDL is here,” she told me. She loves any opportunity to explain LFDL and share its mission. Yu told me she’s found notes of appreciation left in her LFDL. Frye cherishes her repeat visitors: “[The] kids from the neighborhood who stop by on their own to get a book or two. There is a youngster who always peruses the library while walking his beagle to the nearby park. The girl who plops her bike on the sidewalk, takes a seat on the grass, and reads several books right then and there. The parent who stopped me as she pulled her toddler in a wagon and told me that visiting my library to get a book is part of their daily routine.”
Using Their Passion to Make a Difference
Not surprisingly, all of the distributors find great joy in books and told me that they are thrilled to have a way to make a difference through this passion. Hitchcock, who used to be an English teacher, appreciates that LFDL gives her the opportunity to put “high-quality books in kids’ hands” again. She hopes that “the little kids who are my best ‘customers’ now will be more likely to choose books by diverse authors as they get older.” Yu, who’s just begun her elementary school teaching career, says her job is a significant reason why she’s become involved. “[I]t has been such a joy to be able to reach so many people and provide opportunities for important conversations and learning.” Frye told me the greatest reward she’s experienced from LFDL is “spreading the joy of books with community members of all ages. As an elementary school Reading Specialist, I’ve always been passionate about guiding readers toward texts that allow them to see themselves there, validating the fact that their voices matter.”
Tips for Other LFDL Owners and Distributors
If you think you’re ready to join the LFDL community, the distributors I talked to have a handful of tips for you:
“For anyone excited to step out on this journey,” Taylor advises, “begin with just one book and go from there. Even if we just get one book donation, that’s one more diverse book in the hands of someone who might really need to read it.” Tym suggests “[p]icking a theme or age range or genre as a starting place.”
Securing Book and Monetary Donations
Donated books can come from anywhere, whether it’s from your own purchases or from people you know. Hitchcock offers this reminder: “Be shameless in asking for support from your friends and family.” Many distributors offered practical ideas on how to collect more donations:
- Frye has set up donation wishlists through her local bookstore (Watchung Booksellers). She’s also had limited success in reaching out to book publishers.
- Hitchcock is requesting that friends and family order from her LFDL Amazon Wishlist instead of buying her presents for her birthday.
- Klemas checks to see if anyone on her neighborhood’s Buy Nothing Facebook group is giving away books. If so, she asks for any books written by diverse authors.
- Klemas and Hitchcock suggest looking into First Book, which Klemas told me “provides great children’s, middle grade, and YA books at a fraction of the price.”
- Taylor collects book and monetary donations through the organization she formed, RVA Diverse Books Collective.
- Tym has set up a Venmo account (@LFDLMKE) for monetary donations.
Promoting Your LFDL
All of the distributors I reached out to are not only listed on the Little Free Diverse Libraries website, but also maintain social media accounts. Koppa’s social media presence caught the attention of her local Intuit office, whose Women’s Network and African Ancestry Network helped her collect more than 400 donated books.
Some promote their LFDL through the books themselves. Tym inserts bookmarks that explain the LFDL mission in each of her books. Klemas adheres neon labels with her and Kamya’s Instagram accounts on the back covers, encouraging readers to learn more.
Optimizing Your Network
When it comes to donations and promotion, several of the distributors emphasized the importance of tapping into your broader network. “You’d be amazed at how far you can go with just that as a starting point,” Yu told me. In fact, Yu works for a tutoring company that has both donated books and also featured her in an education publication. Yu also partners with a real estate company that has already installed two LFDLs at its properties — and has plans for more.
Hitchcock agrees that distributors should reach out to their communities. When they do, Hitchcock told me, they’ll find that “people are willing to help.”
Curating Your Collection
Before you start filling your LFDL, distributors recommend taking some time to think about how to choose your books. “[It’s] important to do your research to find books, authors, etc. that fit your mission,” Tym advises.
Frye offers this reminder: “Just because a book has a Black or LGBTQ+ character doesn’t mean it is a valued inclusive text.” In fact, Frye has come up with a checklist for evaluating titles:
- Whose voice is mainly being heard in terms of gender/ethnicity/sexual orientation/abilities/religion, etc.?
- Do the diverse characters play a “token” role, or are they complex/round characters?
- Does it perpetuate stereotypes, generalizations, or misrepresentations?
- How is the diversity used? Are your books centered upon the Black experience only about slavery? Are the books with LGBTQ+ characters only about coming out? Are there books that have incidental diversity, where the diversity does not drive the story but just so happens to exist (which is valid, as we need to celebrate the joys)?
- Is the text written by an author of diverse backgrounds?
- How well does the author know the group that is being represented?
- Does the author’s point-of-view promote inclusion and acceptance?
Distributors also suggest being intentional about where you shop for your books. Taylor and Tym recommend supporting small, local, and Black-owned bookstores when you can. Even though it might cost a little more, Tym feels it’s absolutely worth it. If cost is a significant challenge, Tym recommends hunting for diverse books at rummage sales and resale shops.
Maintaining Your Library
Distributors also have tips for keeping your Little Free Diverse Libraries stocked and in good physical condition. Once a week, Klemas checks on the collection of books at her school’s LFDL. If she can’t do it, then she asks a student who lives nearby to help. In the meantime, she’s “slowly building a stockpile of books waiting to trickle onto the shelves of our LFDL.”
When it comes to the LFDL’s physical structure, Hitchcock shared a few tips with me, starting with choosing the structure itself. She points out that many LFL structures aren’t deep enough or tall enough to hold children’s books, which come in different sizes from most adult books. “Think about what kinds of books you want to offer,” she advises future LFDL owners. Hitchcock adds another small, but significant, piece of practical advice: “[D]rill holes in the bottom of your library. This prevents mold.”
Koppa offers a few suggestions to distributors on how to handle negative comments. She’s found that if she lets herself vent to a friend, she’s then able to let it go. She never responds and reminds herself that the negative comments are few and far between. “Ultimately,” she told me, “it positively impacts many more people.” Plus, because people are generally more likely to leave negative reviews, the messages from people whose experiences are positive begin to seem much more valuable and precious.
Clearly, Little Free Diverse Libraries is impacting communities and bringing joy to everyone involved, from founder Sarah Kamya, through distributors and owners all over the world, and ultimately to its supporters and readers. No matter how you choose to engage with LFDL, you’re part of an important celebration of diverse voices and stories in your community.