Saturday, May 7, 2016

Research Required: Little Free Libraries

Jonathan P. Bell
INFO 266
May 7, 2016

Snow, M. (2015). Little Free Libraries: A call for research into the tiny book depositories. Children & Libraries: The Journal Of The Association For Library Service To Children, 13(4), 30-32.

Doctoral student and educator Marianne Snow issues what is arguably the inaugural call to arms for empirical research on the Little Free Library (LFL) movement. The tiny book depositories found on front lawns and public spaces have become a worldwide movement. They offer a place where people can take a book and leave a book. According to organizers, LFLs serve as gathering spaces that bring together friends and strangers around the goal of literacy. Snow says this bold assertion deserves scholarly attention.

The author’s goal is two-fold: she examines the purpose of LFLs and the issues LFLs claim to address; based on the analysis, Snow suggestions areas for future research on LFLs.

Low-income communities face obstacles to library access. Public libraries in poor neighborhoods have fewer resources, staff and amenities as compared to affluent communities. According to Snow, the goal is not equality of resources in rich and poor areas but rather to have more library resources in disadvantaged communities. Low-income communities also face social exclusion in libraries. Because of cultural and socioeconomic disparities, disadvantaged families don’t experience public libraries as “the people’s university.” Instead they may perceive the library as a place for the affluent, or they eschew library use because of presumed language barriers.

LFLs represent an affordable solution to the problem of library exclusion. LFLs bring free resources to disadvantaged neighborhoods that need enhanced library access and better materials. Moreover, LFLs are informal, fun, and low-key. As Snow observed, they’re open 24/7, buildable almost anywhere, no library card is needed and there are no due dates.  These qualities help draw those excluded and hesitant library users. Lastly, LFLs build community by bringing people together around the common goal of literacy.

Having assessed the state of LFLs, Snow suggests the following research questions:
  • Where are LFLs found? Are they in affluent, middle class, and disadvantaged communities? Are they in urban, suburban, and rural areas?
  • What is the circulation rate of LFLs, what is circulating?
  • What materials are available? What is the age level of the materials in LFLs?
  • Who are the users of LFLs?
  • Do materials in LFLs reflect the local cultures?

Snow challenges scholars employ diverse research methods and theoretical lenses in gathering this much needed empirical data in LFLs. This is how the LIS community will verify whether LFLs effectively serve their purpose of removing obstacles to literacy while building community.

Snow is on the mark. There’s been a lot of attention on LFLs in the popular media. This is understandable seeing as it’s a recent phenomenon, but researchers now have a few years of observation and media coverage as a jumping off point. The level of conversation needs to be elevated beyond discussions of how cute they are, or how evil it is for cities to cite LFLs as code violations. We need to elevate this from chatter to discourse. For example, the matter of LFLs running afoul of municipal ordinances is a matter worthy of scholarly investigation. There are enough examples of LFLs in violation to raise questions about local obstacles to maintaining these mini-libraries. The Little Free Library website even has a section dedicated to dealing with local ordinances. A potential empirical study could investigate local laws written supporting LFLs to identify potential model ordinances and resolutions, as well as the local actions opposing LFLs to understand the concerns. This study could identify the planning and building codes that LFLs may violate and ways LFL builders can comply with such laws. In sum, LFL research is needed.

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