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VOL. 45 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 5, 2021

Throw the book at thieves hitting li’l free libraries

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Maybe some shadowy group with an anti-book agenda is behind the shameful deeds. Bibliophobes in Action, say. Illiterates United.

Whatever the motivation, a person (or persons) unknown has been cleaning out some Little Free Libraries around Nashville. It’s a breach of the social contract and honor system upon which Little Free Libraries rely.

Are you familiar with them?

According to the organization’s website: “In 2009, Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, built a model of a one-room schoolhouse. It was a tribute to his mother; she was a teacher who loved to read. He filled it with books and put it on a post in his front yard. His neighbors and friends loved it, so he built several more and gave them away.”

You could stop the story right there and it would still be a charming tale about a son’s act of devotion to his recently deceased mother. But the story did not stop right there.

With the assistance of a partner Bol took on, Rick Brooks, the idea took off. Little Free Library became a registered nonprofit organization in 2012 and, as of 2020, there were more than 100,000 outposts worldwide.

One of those belongs to Leigh Singleton in the Hillsboro/West End neighborhood of Nashville. Leigh had lived in Wisconsin previously, so her “ears perked up” in 2012 when she heard about the organization on NPR.

“I was inspired,” Leigh, who is a former art director for The Ledger, told me in an email message.

It’s not hard to see why. Little Free Libraries are neighborliness at its best. Their success is a testament to the power of altruism, the notion of spreading good without concern about profit. I believe Ben Franklin, often credited with laying the groundwork for what became the public library system in the United States, would have enthusiastically approved.

I certainly do.

There are at least a half-dozen Little Free Libraries within an easy walk from my house. The contents vary widely, depending both on the tastes of the stewards and of the patrons who, at least in theory, help keep the libraries stocked under the take-one, leave-one policy.

Leigh’s library, which she bills as “haunted,” was among the first in the area. Its offerings are a combination of her own tastes and of the neighbors and friends who help stock it.

“I usually make sure there are a few children’s mystery books inside,” she told me. “I’m a mystery fan myself – although it takes me a while to get through a book – so I enjoy adding the books I have read. Former Tennessean colleague Dwight Lewis donated a large supply of mystery hardbacks a while back that I love adding.

“While my idea was that it would contain only mystery/suspense/horror genre books, I find a mix of old romance novels, westerns, classics and nonfiction donated. Also, when I see inappropriate books added (‘Control and Instrumentation Technology in HVAC, 2000’), those get recycled.”

Leigh stamps the books she puts in the library with the LFL stamp, which says “Always a gift. Never for sale.” In a further branding step, she glues her “Haunted” LFL bookplate to the inside covers.

Other than that, she pretty much lets her library run itself.

She’s a member of a Facebook group for library stewards and had seen the occasional post about libraries being looted. So when, on two occasions, neighbors walking by her house mentioned local news reports about similar plunderings, she didn’t give it much thought.

“Until I walked out the morning of Oct. 25 and saw my empty shelves!” she says.

“Now, it’s not really ‘stealing,’ since the books in a library are free to take, read, share, keep or return,” she adds. “But you still feel violated. Plus, I had recently ordered some good children’s mysteries to add, and now I am hesitant to add them. Although I tend to buy used books, they aren’t cheap.”

I can attest from personal experience disposing of Mama’s vast library that the market for used books is not exactly robust, so it’s hard to imagine that anyone is taking the books for monetary gain. The best theory I can come up with is that some people are just jerks.

Which, unfortunately, is not a crime.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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