I don’t often share obituaries on my blog but this one is an exception as it is about an unsung hero: Todd Bol, whose Little Free Library brought books to the street corner. He died Oct. 18 at a hospice center in Oakdale, Minn. at the age of 62.

It All Started in 2009…

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The very first Little Free Library built by Todd Bol. Image: Open Culture

As Washington Post reports, it all started in 2009. The previous year, Bol had been forced out of Global Scholarship Alliance — an organization he had founded. Global Scholarship Alliance offered nursing scholarships for foreign students to study in the US. Bol was sacked by investors he had invited into the company, who told him:

We need to cut back on resources, and you’re the resource we’re cutting back on.

A year later, and no closer to figuring out his next endeavor, Bol repurposed wood from his garage to build a dollhouse-size library in the shape of a one-room schoolhouse. He decorated the structure with a steeple and a tinny toy bell. He painted the library red, using bright white paint for its wood-shingled roof, and crafted a glass door to secure a few of his parents’ favorite books.

Then he set the library outside his home in Hudson, Wis., atop a wooden pole with a sign reading “Free Books.” And he waited.

By the end of the year, he had made and given away 30 of the libraries, building them on his home deck before enlisting an Amish craftsman named Henry Miller to assist him in the work. Bol then set an ambitious goal for himself. Because Andrew Carnegie had built 2,509 libraries, Bol decided he would build 2,510.

By 2018…

Fast forward to today, when his tiny library has sparked the creation of Little Free Library, a nonprofit that has grown into a network of more than 75,000 tiny, whimsical book exchanges that encourage passersby to “take a book, leave a book.”

There are now Little Free Libraries in all 50 states and in 88 countries, from Australia to Brazil, Ghana, Japan, and the Netherlands. They stand inside police stations, subway stops, prisons, hospitals, and even at a refu­gee camp in Uganda. Inside each are about 20 to 100 volumes of whatever a community decides to donate.

Almost all of the libraries feature Plexiglass windows and follow design principles developed by Bol, who determined that anything taller than 24 inches would be too big for his station wagon and anything wider than 23 inches would have trouble fitting in a mailing box. As he put it,

If they get any bigger than that, I hurt my back carrying them.

Little Free Libraries

Little Free Libraries, primarily made by Miller and other Amish craftsmen in rural Wisconsin, start at $150. The organization also offers blueprints and instructions for those who want to build the book-exchange boxes on their own. For $40, builders can join the Little Free Library network, which lists the library on an online map and offers discounted books and other benefits.

Folks have Little Free Libraries shaped like rocket ships, robots, Victorian mansions, black cats, everything under the sun. One is shaped like a life-size TARDIS. Others are done in birchbark by Native American artists. There’s a bright yellow one emblazoned with characters from The Simpsons, autographed by series creator, Matt Groening. Others are housed in repurposed suitcases, storage cabinets, or newspaper honor boxes.

Bol liked to call it a ‘folk art revival.’ For him, the eye-catching artistry of the book-exchange boxes was part of what made them appealing. They were designed, he often said, to draw people together, not just to boost literacy and encourage reading. “They are the water cooler of the sidewalk,” his brother Tony said in a phone interview. “They give you a reason to stop and talk.”

In recent years, the organization expanded to offer programming including the Action Book Club, in which books are tied to group service projects, as well as an initiative to place Little Free Libraries in underserved communities at no cost.

The organization has also spawned imitators, including community boxes built to hold basic hygiene products and canned goods and toiletries. Their creation offers additional proof that, while the books were free and the boxes were unguarded, there was hardly any vandalism or theft.

Surprising? Perhaps. But as Bol himself explained,

What we have found is that the neighborhood starts to feel like it’s theirs. The neighborhood starts taking care of it. People come together to talk about literacy, education — community things that we define so well but lack so much. There is such polarity these days that this is a little commonplace that we’re comfortable with.

Which probably explains why, when an arsonist torched a Little Free Library in Indianapolis, the community rallied, vowing to replace it with 100 more.

You can read more on The Washington Post and Open Culture or watch Bol himself on TedX: