The Little Free Library Project is composed of a wooden box on a post where the public can pick up or drop off reading material.
Beginning last May, Flagstaff residents may have noticed a wave of these mini-libraries dotting the landscape of downtown Flagstaff – a total of three so far – on the Coconino County Courthouse lawn, at Heritage Square and outside the Orpheum Theatre.
A fourth little library is almost completed and will be installed at Wheeler Park in the near future. Plans also call for a fifth library to be placed next year at the Flagstaff Visitor Center on Route 66 at the railroad station.
All five little libraries are designed to blend with the historic areas where they have been placed, with clock tower, red bricks, a bird mural and park tree, and train motifs.
“I just love how each one is unique; no two are the same,” said Terry Madeksza, director of the Downtown Business Alliance (DBA), the entity that coordinates all the little libraries and also represents approximately 180 businesses located downtown. “They are so fitting to the location they’re in. I love them all!”
Harkening back to one-room schoolhouses, these tiny libraries constitute a network dedicated to literacy and community where a visitor can remove books and magazines for free, and return at a later date the same reading matter or any equivalent quality reading materials.
Although there have been a smattering of mini-library boxes in Flagstaff before, a full-blown version of the concept started in the spring of 2017 when the City of Flagstaff, the DBA and BASIS Flagstaff charter school united to form a partnership to create the Downtown Little Free Library Project.
The partnership took form at a monthly meeting of BASIS Flagstaff Boosters when a group of parents and students who work to support the school considered the idea of building bonds between the community and the relatively new school, which opened in 2011.
Madeksza, who is also a BASIS parent and Booster, suggested that DBA could partner with the city and the school.
“Our vision was to have a whole system downtown,” she explained. “We wanted to add to the sense of community downtown. We feel that so often people think that downtown is for visitors and tourists, but we feel it is also a place for our residents. Downtown is sort of their backyard.”
Because the BASIS focus is academic, the idea for establishing micro-libraries seemed like a good fit.
“When we are involved in community-based projects like the Downtown Little Free Library Project, it promotes community engagement among our students, develops civic responsibility and encourages partnerships that help us all support one another,” said BASIS Head of School Corey Hartman.
Although it has been a team effort as key players and volunteers have joined to make the project a reality, BASIS students and their families have been at the heart of the project.
“Families agree to sponsor the libraries, and then we collect books,” Hartman said. “Students have participated in design and construction.”
Also, book drives at BASIS have brought in more than 200 books on average per month to help stock the little libraries.
Little Free Library (LFL) kits that can be ordered online cost about $400.
Sixth- and seventh-grade students helped with ideas, construction methods and painting for the miniature library on the courthouse lawn, said Siera Smyth, a studio art/ceramics teacher at BASIS.
“They found pride and joy in helping with the project because reading is so important, and it’s nice to share things with the community that everyone can enjoy,” Smyth said. “Our students at BASIS take pride in the work they do and were happy to help spread goodness and free books to Flagstaff!”
Spreading free books was an idea that originated a decade ago with Todd Bol, a teacher who is credited with setting up the first little library in a wood box on his deck in Wisconsin, an idea that has spread to more than 75,000 little book exchanges in 88 countries, according to his Little Free Library website.
“Right now, it is really working well,” Madeksza said of the book exchange system here. “People are bringing books back, or we’re getting enough donations that we are able to keep each library well stocked.”
Madeksza said that Clean Team ambassadors from DBA visit the libraries daily to prevent vandalism and to make sure they are clean and well stocked.
BASIS volunteers also work to keep up the quality of the reading materials, and each book is stamped with the school’s Yeti mascot.
Flagstaff resident Tanya Rae, whose son is a BASIS student, spearheaded the idea and theme for the Wheeler Park installation.
“In addition to the warm feeling of helping lead the Wheeler Park Little Free Library Project, it was a real joy to volunteer side by side with my 15-year-old, Austin, and help lay down a first coat of paint,” Rae reflected. “It just feels magical to be a part of a team of such giving and dedicated volunteers during the holidays.”
One of those dedicated volunteers is local woodworker Bob Fain, who is donating his labor and helped plan and construct the tree-house inspired library box for Wheeler Park.
A woodworker since 1978, Fain is the owner of Wood-N-What Knots, a custom furniture and cabinetry business in Flagstaff since 1991. He specializes in carved lettering, bowls, benches and furniture parts.
“The little libraries are a great idea for sure,” Fain said. “They can get from very simple to very complicated; this one was about mid-range. It took a while. I built it to fit our design.”
He did most of the carving on the project using a computerized router.
“We inscribed different events you can do around the Flagstaff area, such as camping, fishing, hiking and biking,” he explained. “The project has been a challenge – lots of detail.”
Fain took pains to repurpose building materials, “So, there’s a recycling element to it,” he added.
After the location in the park is finalized, Artisan Metal Works has been commissioned to make the metal base, pole and platform for the little library. Then Fain will wrap the metal base in ponderosa bark so it looks like a tree trunk. The last step will be to drill a hole in the top of the Wheeler Park library box so a flag can be inserted during annual Fourth of July ceremonies.
“Volunteering builds trust,” Rae concluded. “Partnerships are at the heart of community. Combining volunteerism with community partnerships is just a part of our local heartbeat. The downtown Little Free Library Project is yet another fine example of our local pulse.” FBN
By Betsey Bruner, FBN
Photo by Tanya Rae