Salem’s Little Free Libraries

This photo essay is part of “We Are the Change,” a series telling the stories of local causes. View all the “We Are the Change” essays.

When Todd Bol of Hudson, Wis., built a model of a one-room schoolhouse five years ago, little did he know he was starting a movement that would spread across the globe. He stocked the schoolhouse with books and put it in front of his house to honor his book-loving, schoolteacher mother. It became the first Little Free Library. There are now more than 15,000 of them worldwide.

The Little Free Library’s mission is to promote literacy and the love of reading. According to the organization’s website, these libraries are “take a book, leave a book” gathering places where neighbors can share their favorite literature and stories. People identify a location for their neighborhood library kiosk and a steward to manage it. They build a weatherproof structure, stock it with books and sit back to watch the magic happen.

Salem has 12 of these Little Free Libraries in its neighborhoods. The libraries are a source of pride for people living in the vicinity. A Salem’s Little Free Libraries Facebook page also provides a place to meet and share with others participating in this nonprofit, book-loving movement. There will surely be more in our city as word of mouth gets out about this unique way to share a love of books and a desire for community.

Learn about Little Free Libraries

Little Free Library: littlefreelibrary.org
Salem’s Little Free Libraries Facebook page: www.facebook.com/SalemsLittleFreeLibraries
Jessica Ramey: jessica@diystudio.net
Tawnie Sweet: jtsweetfamily@gmail.com

Retired from his career as a psychiatric rehabilitation specialist, Salem Photo League member Greg Zurbrugg now focuses on social documentary, environmental and travel photography. Check out his work at gregzphotography.com.

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Kendra Mingo and David Craig are the stewards of the Gaiety Hill Little Free Library.

Gaiety Hill resident Nancy Fischer contributes books.

Mingo’s surprised reaction to Craig’s explanation of how he organizes books in their library, which she had not heard before. It explains why she always found them in a different order than when she arranged them.

Book organizational differences are forgiven.

David Craig and Kendra Mingo

445 Leslie St. SE
Library #1545

David Craig, chair of the Willamette University biology department, read about Little Free Libraries in The Oregonian newspaper several years ago and thought it was a cool idea. In his excitement, he registered one before it was even built to help the movement reach its goal of creating more than 2,509 libraries — an objective inspired by the number of libraries Andrew Carnegie founded and supported in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Craig and his wife, Kendra Mingo, explained that the Gaiety Hill neighborhood is a close-knit historic district at the south end of downtown that values diversity, relationships with neighbors, reading, literacy and libraries.

Neighbors Tom McMullen, a retired architect, and Jack Fischer, a Craftsman builder, constructed the library for Craig. It is dedicated to the memory of Dr. George Miller, a Gaiety Hill resident and former director of Salem Hospital who cared deeply about his neighborhood.

When Craig and Mingo were asked if the Salem Public Library located one half-block away was stiff competition for their Little Free Library, they laughed. Craig said, “More books, more better!” To which Mingo replied, “More books, more reading, more better.”

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The Chilcote family, left to right: Sarah; Mary, 11; Emma, 17; Jack, 11; and Keith.

Mary explains how she organizes the books in their library.

All books are stamped with, “Always a Gift, Never for Sale.”

Mary involved neighborhood children in painting the library to promote ownership.

Sarah and Keith Chilcote and family

2983 D St. NE
Library #13652

“Since the kids were tiny, I have taken them to the public library,” says Sarah Chilcote. “They have never had computers in their bedrooms. Reading is important in our family.” Her husband, Keith, adds that “processing the written word has been shown to improve reasoning skills and develop the mind.”

After the Salem Public Library bookmobile’s funding was cut and it stopped coming by their neighborhood, the family decided to build a Little Free Library. Keith built it, and their 11-year-old daughter, Mary, got neighborhood kids to help paint it and put their handprints on the back. Neighbors brought boxes of books to stock it. Within two days, it was almost empty, as neighbors started taking books to read. Keith calls it “the human birdfeeder.”

As the big reader in the family, Mary is responsible for managing the library. It has three shelves — the top for adult books, middle shelf for adolescents and the bottom shelf for children. With a librarian and a teacher in their neighborhood, they have had great support in keeping it stocked with an assortment of books.

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The Ramey family, left to right: Tiger the cat; Bella, 11; Jessica; Will, 9; and Jason.

Tiger greets Little Free Library visitors.

Tile work on the side of the library reminds users, “A book is a gift you can open again and again.”

Bella and Will show off the library book that hides a geocache treasure.

Jessica and Jason Ramey and family

2055 Summer St. SE
Library #4957

Jason Ramey was reading filmmaker Michael Moore’s New Year’s resolutions in January 2013, and one was to support and build a Little Free Library in his hometown of Traverse City, Mich. Not knowing what a Little Free Library was, Ramey followed a link on Moore’s website.

Ramey and his wife, Jessica, felt like the project was a good fit for their neighborhood, so they contacted their neighbors and the idea took root.

One neighbor cut an old camping dishwashing box in half to form the body of the library. They found a door at Habitat for Humanity. Another neighbor did the scroll work and roof representing an upside-down open book. Jessica gave out tile for people to paint for decorating the sides of the library.

They had a neighborhood potluck to dedicate the library and collect books in the spring of 2013, and it has been self-managed by their neighborhood ever since. Their Little Free Library has a geocache treasure in one of the books.

Jessica created Salem’s Little Free Libraries Facebook page as a meeting and sharing space for people interested in the movement in the Salem area.

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The Sweet family, left to right: Tawnie; Lennon, 6; Josh; and Joplin, 1.

One-year-old Margot Horsey explores her neighborhood Little Free Library.

Children’s fingerprints form the leaves of “The Giving Tree” on the library.

Children of the neighborhood enjoy the Little Free Library. Left to right: Amelia Shultze, 2; Bryndle Shultze, 2; Margot Horsey, 1; Lennon Sweet, 6; Megan McDonald, 6; Corryn Horsey, 3; and Joplin Sweet, 1.

Tawnie and Josh Sweet and family

1254 Ruge St. NW
Library #7300

Tawnie Sweet grew up with books. As a child, she had cards from two different libraries because the five-book checkout limit from one library was too restrictive for her liking. She preferred to borrow 10 at a time.

Now, Sweet is the administrative vice president of the West Salem Moms Offering Moms Support (MOMS) Club. One of her duties is coming up with service projects to give back to the community. She heard about Little Free Libraries from an online article, visited Jessica Ramey’s library on Summer Street and thought the idea would be a perfect fit for a MOMS Club project.

Her grandfather’s carpentry skills, along with financial support from the MOMS Club, got the library built. Neighborhood children put their fingerprints on “The Giving Tree” on the sides of the library to spread the love of literacy. It has been a great neighborhood success.