Little Free Libraries provide citizen-run book havens

Chautauqua Institution is known for its pristine grounds, intellectual community and as the home to an age-old program of philosophy, art, knowledge and religion. With the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, the Smith Memorial Library and the Chautauqua Bookstore, the Institution serves as a fertile ground for reading’s bountiful fruit.

In the past few years, small wooden boxes have popped up on the grounds. Each one has a door with a built-in window, filled with books. Known as Little Free Libraries, these communal libraries allow Chautauquans to either take or leave a book.

The trend, however, didn’t begin in Chautauqua — it is part of a larger international campaign that has been gaining notoriety.

In 2009, Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, built a model of a one-room schoolhouse as a tribute to his mother, a former teacher who loved reading.

Filling it with books and setting it on a post in front of his house, the Little Free Library garnered popularity among Bol’s neighbors. He built more libraries and gave them away.

When University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Rick Brooks discovered Bol’s project, they united their efforts to create an even larger initiative. Together, they provided directions on the do-it-yourself project via social marketing.

As of January 2015, the total number of registered Little Free Libraries in the world has reached an estimated 25,000, according to their website. Thousands more are on their way.

Pines Little Free Library on

Chautauqua’s first Little Free Library appeared approximately two years ago. A green library with a red door sits on a plastic crate set at the corner of Hedding by the Pines condominiums. Bob and Joan Battaglin, the owners of possibly first Little Free Library in Chautauqua, said the idea came from their grandchildren as a gift to Joan.

“They thought I would love it because I was a teacher,” Joan said. “I taught reading, and I love to read.”

The Battaglins’ grandchildren, Max, Grace and James, with the help of their parents, Karin and Eric Dusenbury, built the library. They gave Joan the gift for Christmas 2012, the paint on the wood still wet from the night before.

The Battaglins said the free library serves as a communal focal point, and feedback has been positive.

“Anyone who decides for some reason we’re involved, maybe I’m down there fixing the sign or something, they’re always there to see us,” Bob said.

The books for the Battaglins’ library are mostly literature. For the paperback books, most include genres from mysteries to fantasy. Alternatively, the couple said the hardcover books usually seem to be the better books, as some are part of the CLSC reading list. Scattered in between those, Joan said, are some children’s books, but not as much as they’d like to have. They’ve also been putting audio books in after they’ve finished with them.

The Battaglins said their family loved the idea. They hope more libraries pop up soon.
Toothman Little Free Library, on the corner of Wythe and Waugh

The second library was erected in 2014 on the corner of Wythe and Waugh, painted green and growing lettuce and sprouts on its roof.

After each finding a Little Free Library elsewhere, Ingrid and Farley Toothman decided to bring one to Chautauqua.

The library expressed Ingrid’s love and lifelong commitment to reading and giving away books, Farley said. The idea also seemed like something Chautauqua should do more of since it has such a love of literature.

“We have one of the world’s oldest book clubs, and we have people who are organized about books, writing, authors and learning,” Farley said. “Just in the history of that, I see this as a modern expression of making books available.”

The Toothmans said the circulation includes a broad assortment of books. Though they’ve never seen the activity around their library during their stays, the aftermath is obvious, as they find books gone or moved around frequently — particularly the children’s books, Ingrid said.

The Toothmans’ contribution also didn’t go unseen.

Their library inspired others, such as Alan Greenberg, who is president of the Board of Trustees of the Long Beach Public Library. Greenberg took the idea from Chautauqua back to Long Beach, New York, and began installing Little Free Libraries there. With his help and the approval of the board, nine new libraries appeared around Long Beach.

“People stop, they look, they find something interesting,” Greenberg said. “It really just promotes reading, as far as I’m concerned.”

The Toothmans hope they can continue their mission to enrich their community.
ECOC Cook Library

The latest library went up at the beginning of June by the Ecumenical Community of Chautauqua. The idea came from Alyson Cook Stage, whose family boasts a long history in Chautauqua.

“I’m from Seattle, and we have lots and lots of them there,” she said. “Seattle is a very literate city, and they encourage that in neighborhoods.”

This library has even more details than its predecessors. The design itself isn’t of a small schoolhouse, but of the architecture of the nearby Shaw building. Its construction seemed intricate, Stage said.

Dale Hoff, a family friend, constructed the library from plywood, tar paper and same shingle roof of the house it’s modeled after. Stage’s brother, Bob Cook, installed the library.

In the short time Stage has been in Chautauqua this summer, she has filled the library with books; however, she found meeting those demands has not been easy.

“I was here for Week Two and here at Week Four, and I brought with me about close to 100 books,” she said. “And there are less than half of those left.”

Much like the direction the Toothman’s library took, Stage has tried to fill the library with mostly children’s books — she can never run on short supply because she owns a children’s book store in Seattle.

“It’s a very literate community here, and the reason I bring children’s books is because that’s so essential — reading to children and encouraging them to read for themselves,” Stage said.

After seeing those books fly off the shelves, Stage said she felt pleased with her decision. She also makes sure that the library is well-stocked through her connections in the ECOC and has monitored it while on the grounds.

Currently, Stage plans to bring books every season. She has even looked to see if she could also get an account set up with the bookstore to get no sales tax and discounts for purchases to books to bring even more literature to the masses.
The Start of Something Beautiful

With a new Little Free Library going up every year since 2013, owners all say they’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback for their small temples of knowledge. Chautauquans who are interested in Little Free Libraries can visit to learn how to create their own.