It’s hard not to notice the small birdhouse-like structures of Little Free Libraries around DeKalb County. They’re located in parks, neighborhoods, around campus at Northern Illinois University and by stores, churches and schools.
There are 24 registered Little Free Libraries in northern DeKalb County and more than 80,000 worldwide.
Some look like miniature houses, others are upcycled newspaper vending machines.
Amy Forkell’s library in DeKalb is made from a 1960s red mailbox. Joe Bertrand’s library, also in DeKalb, has a Dr. Seuss-like design. In Sycamore, Lisa Quinlivan’s husband built their library and Jessi Haish LaRue used her parent’s old bookshelf. Ryan Read in Genoa purchased a kit online.
Other Little Free Libraries have stories: one was built in front of NIU’s Monat Building in memory of Barbara Coulter and the one outside North Grove School in Sycamore is a replica of Old North Grove School, which operated as a one-room schoolhouse from 1878 to 1952.
The libraries’ slogan, “Take a book. Share a book,” describes how they function: visitors can take a book from the shelves – for free – if they leave a book.
The owners – or stewards – of the libraries initially stock them with books. Because of the “take one, leave one” approach, every library is as unique on the inside as it is on the outside. Most books are arranged by reader’s ages, with children’s and adult books on separate shelves.
At North Elementary School in Sycamore, there are four little libraries outside the main entrance: one for young children in kindergarten and first grade, one for second- and third-graders, one for fourth- and fifth-graders and one for advanced readers including teens and adults.
The little libraries also feature myriad items inside, including bookmarks, stickers and small journals for visitors to say hello, thank you or make suggestions or requests. Some libraries even have dog treats for pets or gloves to take during the winter.
Forkell changes the books in her library for holidays, including Halloween and Christmas. She made her Little Free Library from an old red mailbox in 2015 and took it with her when she moved from Utah to DeKalb in September.
“Although I like adding and changing the books sometimes, the books inside the library change very frequently,” she said. “There’s basically no caretaking or upkeep needed because they’re self-sufficient. Having a library is a great way to meet people, say hello to neighbors and get to know your community.”
Haish LaRue said she sees somebody stop by her library at least once a day, from moms with strollers, neighbors walking their dogs to kids on their way to school.
“I’m always looking out my window and seeing someone at my library, and it’s always exciting,” she said. “I don’t always stress the ‘take one, leave one’ rule. It’s more important for the books to be out there, in the hands of people and being read. It’s a labor of love and a free library. We basically run on the honor code.”
Kristine Wilke, director of the Jerry L. Johns Literacy Clinic in DeKalb, loves that the libraries are free, easily accessible and open year-round.
“Books are expensive, and being able to afford them can be a hardship,” Wilke said. “Some families don’t have a library card or access to transportation. When school’s out during the summer, it’s important for children to continue to read. Little Free Libraries are a free way to promote literacy and a love of reading.”
The literacy clinic has eight Little Free Libraries in the area, including six in DeKalb, one in Sycamore and one in Cortland. Another library will be placed at the Glidden Homestead in DeKalb later this summer. Graduate assistant Kacie Bertrand visits each of the clinic’s libraries weekly to add and change out books.
Wilke said the libraries make it easier for parents to read to their children.
“One of my fondest memories growing up was my mom reading to me, and I’ve always loved reading to my daughters,” she said. “Reading aloud exposes children to vocabulary and sentence structure. We’ve gotten away from sitting and reading with our children, and the Little Free Libraries provide free books to help remedy that.”
When fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Parsons purchased four Little Free Libraries through a grant from the Sycamore Education Foundation for North Elementary School in 2013, she said there were few free library locations and the program was almost unheard of. Now celebrating its 10th year, Little Free Libraries has more than 80,000 locations worldwide.
“Now, they’re affordable and easy to create, all you need is the library, books and to register online,” Parsons said. “It’s a great way to have books available 24/7, 365 days a year. Little Free Libraries have become very popular. Keep your eye out when you’re driving around, it’s amazing how many you’ll see.”
Registering a Little Free Library online costs as little as $39 for a charter sign. The libraries can be handmade or purchased online through the LFL website for between $319 and $329 in different colors and designs.
Locations of registered Little Free Libraries can be found online at www.littlefreelibrary.org/ourmap.
Steward Jill Franke of Sycamore built a library at the end of her driveway in 2016 to help children living in unincorporated areas without a library card have access to books.
“Visiting the libraries has become a treasure hunt,” Franke said. “Some people hop in the car and travel around looking for them. They’re always different and unique and so much fun.”
For more information about Little Free Libraries, visit www.littlefreelibrary.org.