Michelle Zhiqing Yang / Sun Staff Photographer

A Little Free Libraries location in downtown Ithaca.

March 4, 2021

Street-Side Little Free Libraries Foster Community, Love of Reading

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Forget a city that never sleeps — what about a library that never closes?

Located in front yards of homes and downtown businesses, volunteer-run Little Free Libraries have turned neighbors into bookworms and established a familiar community presence on the streets of Ithaca. 

While potentially mistaken for mailboxes or birdhouses, these public book-sharing boxes are planted across the country. Affiliated with the national nonprofit Little Free Libraries, these containers offer 24/7 access to books to facilitate a love of reading and sense of community.

Although much smaller than traditional libraries, Ithaca’s almost 20 Little Free Libraries carry a book for everyone.

David Smith, owner of the West Buffalo Street Little Free Library, has seen children’s books, adult novels, holiday-specific titles and even textbooks pass through his library. 

Smith has a clear view of the book-exchange box from his office desk, which is located in front of his workplace, Tompkins Learning Partners, a downtown Ithaca organization that promotes literacy and teaches English as a second language and basic educational skills to adults.

Although the organization’s tutors and students often peek inside the library, most of the box’s traffic is from pedestrians walking downtown, Smith said. 

“Older people, younger people, people who love books, people who are just curious … come by to take a look [inside the box],” Smith said. 

While Smith’s library is primarily frequented by pedestrians, David Howarth, owner of the Pleasant Grove Road Little Free Library, has seen both foot and drive-up traffic visit his library. 

“[The library] gets a fair number of people that seem to be on the older side who drive up, park, put a book in and take one out,” Howarth said. From what he has observed from the library box located in his front yard, visitors tend to be either younger than 30 or older adults.

A self-proclaimed book lover, Howarth found the process of opening a Little Free Library straightforward. He worked with his dad to build the particle board container complete with roof shingles, and registered his library with the national organization, which added his location to a country-wide map of other Little Free Libraries.

Howarth often replenishes the library from the boxes of books in his basement. He has noticed that children’s books seem to be flying off the library shelves and are often gone within 24 hours of being placed in the box. 

Ithaca resident Naomi Sommers regularly visits the Blackstone Avenue Little Free Library near Northeast Elementary School with her children. While her family doesn’t always take a book out of the library, they have found children’s books, parenting books, cookbooks and adult novels when they do. The family has even left books in the library on occasion. 

“For [my kids] it’s pretty magical and very inviting,” Sommers said. 

Although she has yet to bump into anyone using the library at the same time as her family, she said she believes its presence brings the community together. While browsing the contents of the library, Sommers enjoys seeing what other members of the community have read.

“It helps give people a feeling that there’s a neighborhood,” Smith said. “Even if they’re just passing through, it gives people the idea that there’s a community where people care about things, and I think there’s not enough of that anymore.”