Anyone familiar with Little Free Libraries – the free book exchanges in cities around the world – knows the powerful, transformative impact these little boxes have on communities. They create a sense of shared space, bring people together, and promote literacy. There are now over 50,000 Little Free Libraries in 70 countries.
Recognizing the power of Little Free Libraries to transform communities, the Little Free Library organization recently launched the Action Book Club. The book club is like any other book club in that it brings people together to read and discuss books – what makes it unique is that it encourages its members to take a positive action in their communities. Little Free Library provides a recommended reading list to get people started. When the Action Book Club launched in January, almost 200 groups signed up within 48 hours.
We spoke with Little Free Library founder Todd Bol and Margret Aldrich, author of "The Little Free Library Book" and program manager for the Action Book Club project, about the inspiration for the book club, what community service actions different groups have taken so far, and the importance of the grassroots literacy movement.
Cat Johnson: What was the inspiration for the Action Book Club?
Margret Aldrich: At Little Free Library, we see our stewards doing really wonderful things in their communities. We see them go beyond their Little Free Library to do things like plant community gardens and host story times. We started to think about how else we can harness the power of books to inspire people to do good things.
Todd Bol: People always say it takes a village to raise a child, but that's only an observatory statement. The key is asking, "How am I part of the village?" That's a participatory statement.
How does the Action Book Club work?
Aldrich: It's like a traditional book club. People read a book and discuss it, but then they go a step further to take positive action. During the pilot program we had an elementary classroom in Louisiana read a picture book together, "The Last Stop on Market Street." Their project was to collect socks for a homeless shelter. In a month, they collected more than 100 pairs. They called it Socktober.
We've been seeing sign-ups come from all over the country, in New York, California, Montana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas – all over the country. We've also seen a huge variety of the kinds of groups that are signing up. We've seen classrooms, retired friends, neighbor[hood] groups, church groups, business owners, teachers, the list goes on and on. It's really heartening to see so many people of different backgrounds wanting to read a good book and do something good for their community.
After folks get together, discuss the book, and do their project, the third step – and the one that's really important to us – is that they come back and tell us what they did. We're excited to see the kinds of projects people dream up and then to share those stories and inspire a ripple effect of good works.
Bol: It's modeling and empowering. It's people believing they can do this and that it's important that they should. People need to be part of the community, part of the village. I was listening to a piece on the anniversary of 9/11. An anti-terrorist expert was talking and he said, "You can stop a terrorist here, you can stop a terrorist there, but you're not going to stop them all unless you change the village." If we don't change the village, we're doomed.
As Americans, we have to get out and do something. It's hard to think clearly with clenched fists. If we spend all our time and energy in a clenched fist mode, we don't get a lot done, we just get a lot of resentment. Hopefully, the Action Book Club, like the Little Free Library, reminds people, over and over again, that we have ... many more similarities than we do differences. That's a big part of why we're doing this.
How does the book club align with the Little Free Library mission to inspire a love of reading, build community, and foster neighborhood book exchanges around the world?
Bol: I'm always asked what my big goal is, and I always say that the big goal for Little Free Library is that in 2035, we write a book called, "We All Read Well Together." It would be the history of the grassroots literacy movement and how it acted as a change and transformation for the whole planet.
Literacy is the great globalization piece that brings us together. We have the skill set, the knowledge, the wisdom, the people, and the desire to make this happen. All we've got to do is just stroke it a bit, organize it a bit, strengthen it a bit. The Action Book Club is another accelerator to make those things happen.
Can you give me more examples of Action Book Clubs that are already active and seeing community-building and strengthening results?
One Action Book Club in Minneapolis that was an existing book club joined a volunteer bike patrol to patrol city bike paths, and they're having a lot of fun doing it. Another group in Ventura, California, decided their action would be to save the bees in their community. They planted clover and gave away seeds with native wildflowers to people in their neighborhoods to help bring the bees back. In Bellingham, Washington, a mom and her kids formed an Action Book Club of three, read a book together, [and] had a free front-yard lemonade stand that accepted donations for their local aquarium.
• Cat Johnson is a writer and content strategist focused on coworking, collaboration and community. Publications include Yes! Magazine, Utne Reader, GOOD, Shareable, Triple Pundit, Mother Jones, Future Perfect and Lifehacker. Follow Cat on Twitter: @CatJohnson.