I first heard about Little Free Libraries back in 2016. One of my professors would give us updates on the development, build, and creation of his. Even so, this non-profit book exchange program faded from my mind for several years. Then, in the midst of a TikTok session, a pair of BookTok-ers filmed their afternoon visiting several Little Free Libraries in their area. I checked the online map, discovered more than a few existed in my area, and contacted my best-friend M to schedule a trip of our own.
The Reno-Sparks area has around 60 Little Free Libraries registered on the site. For the most part, there seems to be at least one in each neighborhood—from the southern Damonte Ranch to the northern Lemmon Valley, east to Hidden Valley and west to Sierra Vista. Most of them are clustered in the Midtown and Downtown areas. As of this blog, I have visited only about 7 of these. (As such, I may write a follow-up or update as I discover more). However, based off of M and my findings, I can make some generalizations about the libraries in the south and east of Reno.
Not every library functions in the same way, but I generally follow the “take a book, leave a book” model of lending. Since I had gone through my collection and weeded out books to get rid of, I had a few boxes in the back of my car perfect for such a purpose. I’ve also heard this is a good way of moving ARCs into circulation (since they aren’t supposed to be sold commercially). Some libraries are more public (a shopping mall or school) and others are private (someone’s front yard). This is a fun activity to do with friends, but can also be done solo depending on your comfort level.
M and I missed the first library on our list since it was a little hidden, but we pulled off the road and explored the findings. This one had a cool design that separated the books for young readers from the older readers. Most of the books in the top level were literary or classics so M and I added some genre and YA to the selection. I ended up re-organizing the younger reader books as I went through them (most of which were also older; one of which was drawn in). I grabbed a copy of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe since I’ve never gotten around to reading it.
Our next two stops had dedicated boxes within a neighborhood, but not in front of someone’s yard. Most of the selection was romance or mystery paperbacks, more book club types, and a limited number of kids’ books. M found a few titles to add to her collection, but, for the most part, we did more adding than subtracting. This seemed to be the status quo at most of our stops. Our preferred readings were overwhelmingly not present: YA for M and horror for me. We’d throw new books into the box and move onto the next.
We spent a good amount of time re-organizing and cleaning the Little Free Library at the Summit Mall, because it was an embarrassing mess. One of the panels was broken and a good amount of debris had gotten in, and both doors wouldn’t open. We shuffled the books around, creating a shelf for older readers on top and one for younger readers on bottom. The selection here—especially with the weather damage—reminded me of yard sale cast-offs. A lot of old romances, religious and self-help pamphlets, and not much that was recent. We added what we could and left for the next one.
Many of the front yard boxes were decorated and better cared for. Some of them were full of books and others were slightly empty. We had some good finds in the Donner Springs area, and circled around Mira Loma for a bit because someone’s party had taken up most of the parking near the library. Our final stop was a Little Free Library near a charter school and some apartments, where I left a good number of my writing books and M emptied the rest of her give-aways.
Later, with more books to cast away, I went solo and re-visited some of the stops. (It is much easier to have someone else navigate). A few of the books M and I had left were still in the libraries, but new ones had been added. I left a few books everywhere I went and took two books total from the three libraries I visited. Justina Ireland’s Scream Site (YA and horror!) and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came home with me. I even had a moment of interaction with one of the library owners, who was kind and didn’t expect me to leave anything.
While we can’t make total judgments off of a sixth of the boxes available in my area, I can generally say most of the Little Free Libraries didn’t contain books I would actively read or be interested in. Some of that may be due to the areas I was exploring, but it may be indicative of the usual literary vs genre bias we see in fiction. James Patterson, Danielle Steele, and The Great Gatsby do not constitute the wide world of literature. The lack of more recent titles—for adults and kids—was also troubling. Yes, I loved The Baby-Sitters Club when I was young, but I don’t know if today’s tweens want that or something more relevant to their experiences. Most of the books were in decent condition, however, and some were almost new quality.
The differences between a Little Free Library and an actual library are several. First, one is privately managed and the other is public. This generally allows certain biases to play into what books may end up in the box or not, depending on how it’s managed. There were very few books by or featuring BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, or other minorities. When religious texts were present, they were overwhelmingly Christian. In terms of nonfiction, the selection—like knowledge—may be controlled and books discussing anti-racism, feminism, or other “controversial” topics may not be allowed. Public libraries, on the other hand, usually encompass the wide expanse of experiences present within our society. Public libraries also circulate, weed, and acquire based on certain criteria. Additionally, I have heard of people taking desirable books from Little Free Libraries and selling them. I’m not trying to set public versus community libraries against each other, because not everyone has easy access to a public library but may be near a free one. The most important thing is making reading accessible, affordable, and fun.
Washoe County has a total of 12 public libraries; 9 of these are in the same area I surveyed. Little Free Libraries were intended to combat “book deserts” and, in our area at least, I can see the possible need since so much of our city sprawls and is un-walkable. Between the public and private libraries and used bookstores like Grassroots, Reno-Sparks has reasonable access to reading in many ways. If you’ve seen one of these colorful boxes and have yet to check it out, they are worth the occasional exploration and contribution. However, if your tastes don’t lean toward mass paperbacks or book club selections then you may have better luck searching elsewhere.
I am hoping that the other 50+ boxes in my area will surprise me, but that’s an adventure for another time.