Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Are Little Free Libraries failing to fulfill their own mandate?

Those Little Free Libraries are everywhere in my middle-class Toronto neighbourhood. I have always seen them as well-meaning, if slightly redundant, living as we do in the city with one of the biggest and best free public library system in the world. They are cute, and most people seem to like them. My wife, however, sees them as an evil blight (a slight exaggeration of her views, perhaps), set up in opposition to the public libraries. A recent article on Treehugger about the Little Free Library phenomenon has me possibly rethinking my own impressions.
Not all of the little free libraries out there are Little Free Libraries, but many of them are. Although the Little Free Library organization is a not-for-profit, it has something of a stranglehold on the sector, with over 50,000 official LFLs currently in use in over 70 countries. It charges a registration fee of between $42 and $89 for the use of its brand-name, as well as anywhere from $179 and $1,254(!) for its little house structures for books (although it is not mandatory that registrants use Little Free Library's own structures). I'd certainly be fascinated to see what a top-of-the-line unit looks like!
A couple of Toronto researchers (from Ryerson University and the University of Toronto) have recently published a study which questions the whole concept. Given the registration fee and structure costs, it may come as no surprise that the vast majority of LFLs are in wealthy, gentrified neighbourhoods, populated by an educated, degree-toting population. They are also overwhelmingly in areas where public libraries already exist. So much for addressing the issue of "book deserts", as the Little Free Library organization boasts! Neither do LFLs have any role to play in community-building, another claim of the project, with owners having almost zero interaction with strangers or the local community. 
The research study contends that the adoption of LFLs is a form of branded philanthropy known as "virtue-signalling", which is "driven more so by the desire to showcase one’s passion for books and education than a genuine desire to help the community in a meaningful way". Ouch!
The study concludes that public libraries (at least in a city like Toronto) do much better job of both community-building and providing appropriate literature to everyone at no cost than do LFLs. It does not go so far as to claim that LFLs are actually hurting the public library system, just that they are failing miserably in their own self-professed mandate.

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