I've Been Schooled!


Yes, this retired schoolteacher and fledgling journalist learned quite a bit recently while in the process of writing this, the fourth Stone Soup Literacy column. The most important lesson I learned is that there always are multiple perspectives on a topic. Even though I was sure that what I had planned to write about was nothing but a wonderful, neighborhood-driven, super-duper way to share books and thus grow literacy in our community, I now understand that there is a cloud hanging over my sunny story.

The topic that I had planned to write about was the Little Free Library (LFL) program. Started in 2009, the program is a “take a book, return a book” free book exchange. Participants build or repurpose some type of weatherproof container that typically is placed near a sidewalk or other easy access point. They may then be registered as a LFL site for a fee. LFL’s stated goals are “Building Community, Sparking Creativity, Inspiring Readers” by “playing an essential role of providing access to books in areas where books are scarce.” Sound familiar? Other than the sparking creativity part, it sounds a lot like the mission of Stone Soup Literacy – “Growing readers one community at a time.” So, what is my concern?

My concern is that if the goal of the LFL program is to provide books to those who might not otherwise have access to them, then that goal is not being achieved. Research reveals that the majority of the little libraries are not found in the communities that need them most and while good intentioned, may even undermine community libraries.

To fully understand this topic, I needed to talk to the experts – the head librarians of our local libraries. In conversations with Diane Whitaker, director of the Annie Halenbake Ross Library in Lock Haven, Jennifer Freed, director of the Centre County Library and Historical Museum in Bellefonte and Laura Sarge, children’s librarian of the Centre County Library and Historical Museum, I learned, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story. As these dedicated library professionals helped me to understand, anything that potentially draws people away from the “big free library” may unintentionally be hurting it.

Libraries across the country struggle financially to stay alive and must heavily rely on non-government funding sources. The government funding formula is complex and challenging to briefly explain. Regardless of the formula, one consistent outcome is that whatever funding libraries have received in the previous year, they often get less with the next budget cycle. In an article in the Lewistown Sentinel titled Proposal Eliminates Library Funding (May 25, 2017), J. Cahill writes that the proposed 2018 federal budget could have a significant impact on local, state-aided libraries as it eliminates the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The institute is the source of federally allocated funds that are funneled into Pennsylvania via the Office of Commonwealth Libraries and then on to statewide programs and databases and local libraries. Thus, while libraries do receive federal, state and local funding, there is no guarantee as to how much they will receive from one year to the next. Endowments, Foundations and individual and corporate donations are critical revenue sources, as are fund-raising efforts by the library staff and Friends of the Library groups.

What does library funding have to do with Little Free Libraries. Providing free books is great IF said books are in places where underserved populations have access to them. For example, let’s say that I have books that I’m willing to give away. Perhaps I should take them to the communities where they are needed; however, as I don’t know where they are needed, then maybe I should donate them to the library so that they can sell them and use the money for outreach programs. And guess what? Outreach programs are only one of many free services that libraries provide, both inside and outside of their big beautiful buildings.

If we as a community value literacy, then we must gain a deeper understanding of what libraries do and what we can do to support them. We must find a way to channel our good intentions and honorable pursuits by partnering with our local libraries. More about these topics in an upcoming column – until then, find out what you can by visiting Diane and Jennifer and Laura and the many amazing folks at the Ross and Centre County Libraries. Like the sign outside of the Centre County Library says, “Come on in, our librarians love checking you out!”