Through Community Book-Sharing Boxes, Cincinnatians Are Developing Relationships One New Reader at a Time

These small structures are multiplying throughout Greater Cincinnati in every neighborhood.

click to enlarge Community book shares have popped up all around Cincinnati. - Photo: Allison Babka
Photo: Allison Babka
Community book shares have popped up all around Cincinnati.

“Reading is fundamental,” countless teachers, cartoon characters and public service announcements told children in the 1980s and 1990s. A good book or two is the key to a fulfilling career, creative relaxation time and engaging conversation among friends, they said. Read, and all your dreams will come true, they said.

But since then, the United States has gone through multiple recessions, there’s no time for relaxing due to the multiple jobs necessary to pay rent, and conversation frequently has been relegated to phone and laptop screens. Raising literacy rates – particularly during the last decade – became a focus for educators.

In May, the Akron Beacon Journal reported that about 39,000 children have failed Ohio’s required reading test since 2014. That’s even more pronounced when looking at urban vs. suburban statistics, with 80% of lower-income students not reading proficiently in 2018 compared to just 48% of students in higher-income neighborhoods with more resources, according to education data researcher Think Impact.

Educators have said that part of the problem, especially during a child’s early years, is a lack of proximity to reading materials or to adults who read
for both knowledge and enjoyment.

A number of programs have tried to combat that, with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library among the most notable nationally. Alongside community partners, the country legend’s organization supplies registered children with one book per month through age five (Parton visited Ohio Aug. 9 to celebrate Imagination Library efforts within the state). Programs for both adults and children also are available through local schools and public libraries.

“When we talk about early literacy, it’s not just reading. We’re talking about those foundational skills and knowledge that help a child get a really good start in kindergarten and therefore help them to continue to progress,” says Mary Kay Connolly, executive director of Read Ready Covington, a literacy initiative that encourages reading proficiency for local children prior to entering Kindergarten. “No child should have to start school feeling like they’re not ready.”

But books are bringing readers together in new places, too. Little Free Library is one of the most recognizable, prolific programs that takes a community-based approach to putting reading materials directly into neighborhoods, especially in the “book deserts” where bookstores and tutoring centers typically don’t put down roots.

“People often talk about food deserts and the programs to help children have food on weekends and summer,” Connolly says. “Well, people don’t often talk about the book deserts that we have. Many children do not have home libraries, they may find it difficult to get to the library because of transportation issues or limited time availability.”

Originally launched in Wisconsin, Little Free Library is the most notable organization behind the “take-a-book, share-a-book” movement that has taken hold in Cincinnati and around the world. According to LFL’s website, there are more than 125,000 of its registered book exchange cupboards across the globe, with 42 million tomes traded each year.

The tiny libraries often are erected in front of a house or at a neighborhood corner that sees frequent foot traffic. A “steward” is responsible for building the book stand (many people design their own, but LFL also sells building kits) and for paying about $35 for an optional metal LFL charter sign for the structure along with the privilege of being added to the official map of book exchanges at Stewards can supply books themselves or call on neighbors and friends to drop off items.

Not all community book cupboards are part of the official Little Free Library program, and not all Little Free Library structures are on the organization’s map. Many structures also offer canned food, hygiene items, vinyl albums and CDs in addition to novels, how-to books, audiobooks and DVDs.

Read Ready Covington and its partners have more than doubled the number of Little Free Libraries in Covington, Connolly says.

And these small book structures are multiplying throughout Greater Cincinnati in every neighborhood, with many as varied in their appearance as they are in the books they contain. Below, check out some of CityBeat’s favorites from around town and learn about a few folks who are using them to build communities around books.

The Little Free Library in Deerfield Towne Center is made from a decorative telephone callbox. - Photo: Lindsay Wielonski
Photo: Lindsay Wielonski
The Little Free Library in Deerfield Towne Center is made from a decorative telephone callbox.

Neighborhood: Deerfield Township

Where to find it: near Duck Donuts at Deerfield Towne Center, 5635 Deerfield Blvd.
Special characteristics: Repurposed London-style red telephone booth
What’s inside at the moment: Divergent, Milk and Honey, House Blood, Miracles From Heaven

You can’t miss the big red callbox of books in Deerfield Towne Center.

Originally just a piece of decor, the telephone booth underwent light and shelf installations and now acts as a mini-library, housing books for people of all ages.

In a partnership, Deerfield Towne Center and the Mason Public Library aim to promote literacy and book access in the area. The Volunteer Friends for the Mason Public Library (VFML) donates books that keep the Little Free Library stocked. The organization also raises funds to support the Mason Public Library’s reading programs and “continued improvement of the library’s circulation and continued improvement of the facility,” according to the VFML website.

Danielle Reynolds, marketing manager at RPT Realty, which manages the shopping center, tells CityBeat that one of the main goals of the Little Free Library is to offer a self-sustaining benefit to the community. Book exchanges sometimes can focus on children’s items, but Reynolds says that her team makes it a priority to include books for other age groups, too.

“Our biggest thing is making sure that it has books in it for all ages. It’s just not kids’ books in there. We want everybody to be able to access it,” Reynolds says.

The telephone-booth library sits in an open, centric place near a fire pit. That way, Reynolds says, people can sit and enjoy live music and meals from the center’s restaurants while also browsing the Little Free Library’s book selection that day.

“It’s just positioned in a great location where the kids can, you know – if their parents are eating or if we have live music going on and the kids want to go grab a book, look through it, and they put the book right back and another kid can enjoy it,” Reynolds says.

Some people have even embraced putting more non-typical items in the bright red library. Reynolds says that an antique record player made an appearance there in the past. In another surprise moment, a Little Free Library steward from another state hid items in the Deerfield Towne Center Little Free Library and then used social media to urge their Ohio followers to look for the gifts.

Reynolds says that the center’s Little Free Library has had a positive response from the community and even has too many books at a time.

“Sometimes we get so much that we pile them up. We go out there and we straighten it and then we take the extra and then put them out when the library starts getting low again,” Reynolds says.

- Lindsay Wielonski

Alice Finkelstein’s Little Free Library in East Walnut Hills resembles her own house. - Photo: Allison Babka
Photo: Allison Babka
Alice Finkelstein’s Little Free Library in East Walnut Hills resembles her own house.

Neighborhood: East Walnut Hills

Where to find it: 2728 Hackberry St.
Special characteristics: Red house replica situated near lush greenery
What’s inside at the moment: Alone in the Dark, Deception Point, Keys to Uncomfortable Living, My Game and Yours

Alice Finkelstein’s house has its very own miniature replica, modified to serve as a Little Free Library. The little library is painted red and features a black roof with a chimney on the top, mirroring Finkelstein’s real house behind it.

Finkelstein is a librarian and head of technical services at Klau Library, which is part of the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion that houses one of the top American collections of Hebrew history, literature and culture.

Six years ago, when she had taken a pause from being a librarian after a long career, Finkelstein felt she was missing that piece in her life.

“I still felt like a librarian at heart,” Finkelstein tells CityBeat.

Finkelstein says discovering the Little Free Library organization fulfilled that longing for her librarian days while also enabling her to provide a secure place for children to retrieve books.

“There was really no safe, walkable library, especially for children,” Finkelstein said. “So I really wanted to do a lot of children’s books. It seemed like there was a need for one.”

Finkelstein says she registered her location and ordered a library box from the Little Free Library website, customizing the structure to match the style of her home. Due to her knowledge of libraries, Finkelstein knew where to get books for her upcoming visitors.

Finkelstein says she has had the little library for years and notices a few people pass by each day, either to pick up a book or merely to browse her selection. Her favorite part of the process is interacting with the people that visit, she says.

“I think it is just kind of the librarian in me that gets this little thrill,” Finkelstein says. “Like, when somebody takes a book…sometimes if I’m working out in the yard, they’ll come by and say something about it, then I want to know what it is they like to read. The librarian in me just wants to give people books. That’s satisfying in itself.”

As bookstores and digital reading options have increased over the years, Finkelstein says some have raised concerns about whether traditional public libraries would remain. However, she says that these developments – including the Little Free Libraries – have caused an interest in reading overall, creating a positive impact on both libraries and neighborhoods.

“I feel like the more people have access to books and the more they remember that reading is a pleasant thing to do, and the more that they find books with their kids and read for their kids, it perpetuates more reading and more literacy,” Finkelstein says. “So it’s really just an opportunity to keep reading as a social thing and a neighborly thing that’s right there when you’re walking down
the street.”

- Lauren Serge

Madison Kelly grabs a book from the library outside McKie Recreation Center. - Photo: Allison Babka
Photo: Allison Babka
Madison Kelly grabs a book from the library outside McKie Recreation Center.

Neighborhood: Northside

Where to find it: McKie Recreation Center, 1655 Chase Ave.
Special characteristics: a blue box with a slanted roof
What’s inside at the moment: Isabelle from the American Girl doll series, Time Castaways, Wild, The Killer Angels

Many community book stands are erected on streets with heavy foot traffic. This one takes that idea to the next level.

The McKie Recreation Center in Northside sees thousands of visitors every year, thanks to its fitness center, gymnasium, swimming pool and a bevy of
classes and programming. A book exchange to the left of the facility’s main entrance makes perfect sense, then.

The LFL-registered structure beckons in a cheerful blue hue, with a decal on the cupboard window showing that it’s sponsored by the Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati, a nonprofit that connects local reading programs and organizations. Inside the wooden repository, curious folks can find everything from fiction to biographies to self-help.

But the vast selection of children’s books is what makes this Little Free Library so much fun.

That’s what seven-year-old Madison Kelly says. A regular at the rec center (her mom is an employee), Kelly tells CityBeat that she pulls out a new book to read every chance she gets.

“I like to look for big words, like in chapter books, so I can try to read them,” Kelly says, adding that she’s very good at sounding out words. “Every time I come by the library, I take a different book that I can read first and a different book that’s hard. I always say, ‘I can do it.’”

Kelly opens the Little Free Library and becomes excited when she sees The Cat in the Hat and Magic Tree House books. The young student, who says she also is a gymnast, tells CityBeat that she hadn’t yet grabbed those from the book cupboard.

Kelly says that she also visits the Cincinnati Public Library for books frequently, but with the rec center so convenient thanks to her mom’s position, the Little Free Library has become her go-to source for reading material.

“I love learning math and reading,” Kelly says. That will come in handy years down the road, as the first-grader reveals that she might want to become a teacher in order to help others learn to read.

- Allison Babka

click to enlarge Jane O’Brien’s library in CUF complements her peace pole. - Photo: Allison Babka
Photo: Allison Babka
Jane O’Brien’s library in CUF complements her peace pole.

Neighborhood: CUF

Where to find it: 2195 Maisel Dr.
Special characteristics: Pale white craftsman cupboard surrounded by greenery and a peace pole
What’s inside at the moment: Midnight Sun from the Twilight series, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The 6 Most Important Decisions You’ll Ever Make, LSAT Prep Tests Unlocked

Many readers thrive on discovery – holing up in a secret spot where they can dive into a new book that stokes their imagination more than they’d dared to hope.

The location of Jane O’Brien’s Little Free Library in CUF is tailor-made for that. With easy proximity to several local colleges – plus plenty of students housed along her street – O’Brien’s book exchange already is a boon for curious minds. But with her charming bungalow, tall, lush greenery and rabbits and squirrels running about on her cozy one-way drive, O’Brien’s dreamy setting itself also brings to mind portions of J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantasy novel The Hobbit – appropriate for housing a library with tomes of every genre.

O’Brien says she saw her first Little Free Library at St. Catherine University while she was visiting the Minneapolis area for a conference in 2012.

“I’d never seen anything like it. It said, ‘Leave a book, take a book,’ and I thought, ‘What a great idea,’” O’Brien tells CityBeat. “I didn’t know anybody in Ohio who had one.”

After some research into the growing initiative, O’Brien and a friend who works on projects around her home began planning the library that eventually would be stationed on Maisel Drive in 2014. She says her library typically carries nonfiction, literary classics, theology books and anti-racism books, but patrons – who often are dog walkers or employees at a nearby nursing home – also drop off other genres.

“Everything eventually goes, which is amazing,” O’Brien says.

She says that delivery drivers from UPS, FedEx and Amazon frequently browse the cupboard, as well.

“They knock on the door and say – this has happened three times to me – ’I don’t have any books to put in it. Can I still take one?’ And I say, ‘Sure, take two, take three,’” O’Brien recalls. “One man said, ‘You know, it’s my boy’s birthday next week and I’d like to get him a book.’”

O’Brien supplies some of the books herself, but many are from friends, employees at the nursing home or nuns who visit her from Wisconsin. O’Brien, herself, is a Catholic nun and says her friends insist on bringing something each time they come.

“They like to arrive with all the leftovers from their refrigerators. And I have a very small house, a very small refrigerator, so now I say to them, ‘Please don’t bring anything, especially anything that needs to be refrigerated. But I could use some books for the little library.’ So they come with lots and lots of children’s books, and that’s nice,” O’Brien says.

Literacy is important to O’Brien, who had studied classical languages and then taught English and religion, including at a girls’ school near Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She’s been at her house on Maisel for about 20 years, she says.

“For me, [the Little Free Library] is part of the literacy movement. I tutor young kids and adults who are illiterate and teenagers who are semi-literate, and many of the children have never seen any books,” O’Brien says. “Not only are people not reading to them, but their parents are illiterate. Books are a foreign thing to them.”

O’Brien says that her Little Free Library – like others around the nation – helps to open minds and build community. It’s the perfect complement to a tall pole that stands near the book cupboard, its message written in Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew and English: “Peace.”

- Allison Babka

This small library in a Mason subdivision is in a gazebo near a pond. - Photo: Lindsay Wielonski
Photo: Lindsay Wielonski
This small library in a Mason subdivision is in a gazebo near a pond.

Neighborhood: Mason

Where to find it: Meadowbrook Lane
Special characteristics: Small, light gray box posted to a wooden gazebo leg and framed by greenery
What’s inside at the moment: The Lucky Years, All Creatures Great and Small, A Writer’s Reference, Green Eggs and Ham

After brainstorming and conversation in 2020, the idea to install a Little Free Library on this Mason street came to fruition in March of 2021. Rob Folmar, Arbor Creek’s Homeowners Association (HOA) president, and another HOA board member installed a Little Free Library to offer book-sharing to neighborhood residents.

“After conversations with a couple neighbors, we thought it would be an affordable and nice amenity to provide the neighborhood,” Folmar tells CityBeat.

Folmar bought the Little Free Library from the organization’s website and installed it on a gazebo in the neighborhood that overlooks a pond. One
of the gazebo’s posts made for a good foundation, eliminating the step of building a post to attach the library to, he says.

Once the library was installed, Folmar stocked it with a few children’s books. After that, the “Take a book, share a book,” slogan of Little Free Library took off in the neighborhood.

“The first day, I think I had put some children’s books in,” Folmar says. “I think other people put some more adult books in there, but since then, I have not put anything in there, but it looks fairly stocked.”

Folmar says that there’s always risk that comes with installing a public amenity.

“You put something up, you’re always scared of, you know, somebody’s going to damage it or somebody’s going to paint on it,” Folmar says.

So far, he says, there haven’t been any signs of damage. The neighborhood’s Little Free Library is used often by residents and houses new books about every few weeks, Folmar adds.

- Lindsay Wielonski

There are Little Free Libraries and other book exchanges throughout Greater Cincinnati. Here are a few more that caught CityBeat’s eye recently.

Neighborhood: Westwood
Where to find it: 3115 Hanna Ave.

Neighborhood: Bellevue
Where to find it: 407 Grandview Ave.

Neighborhood: Over-the-Rhine
Where to find it: 1300 Republic St.

Neighborhood: Covington
Where to find it: George Rogers Clark Park, 301 Riverside Dr.

Neighborhood: Northside
Where to find it: Donaldson Place near Haight Avenue

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About The Authors

Lauren Serge

Lauren Serge is a frequent contributor to CityBeat. Born in Mason, Ohio, Lauren graduated from Ohio University with a degree in journalism, working for various publications during her education. She currently resides in Pittsburgh and enjoys spending time with her friends and family and making copious Spotify...
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