The Crackdown on Little Free Libraries and What It Means
The idea behind Little Free Libraries is simple: a book lover builds a small “library” in their front yard — either a box, a crate, or a larger dollhouse-like structure – and fills it with used books, which their neighbors are encouraged to freely borrow from and add to. People generally follow a “take one/give one” philosophy, but often donate several of their own used books and those without the means to add themselves are welcome to borrow for free. They’re a quintessential example of both the cashless economy and simply being a good neighbor, with some users saying “I met more neighbors in the first three weeks than in the previous 30 years.” But in some cities, they’re also illegal and those cities are spending scarce resources to clamp down on them. Why?
The Atlantic recently published a scathing article on this recent crackdown, saying that, “A subset of Americans are determined to regulate every last aspect of community life. Due to selection bias, they are overrepresented among local politicians and bureaucrats. And so they have power, despite their small-mindedness, inflexibility, and lack of common sense so extreme that they’ve taken to cracking down on Little Free Libraries, of all things.”
The issue seems to be that the libraries are considered “obstructions” and “that you can’t do anything that might block emergency vehicle access, obstruct motorists’ views, impede pedestrians or make it hard to open car doors” lest you be subject to fines and penalties. And moving the libraries from city-owned boulevards to the private property immediately in front of a house doesn’t help, as it would then require zoning permits. A city spokesperson said, “that if there is no clear obstruction, it might be possible to keep the library where it is if [the owner] is willing to apply for a permit. And it’s possible that city arts funds could be tapped to pay for the permit.”
Scarce city funds being used to pay for a permit to allow what residents were willing to do for free must be the height of myopic absurdity. Thankfully, however, some residents are fighting back.
The Los Angeles Times reports of at least one instance where a resident who was served with a citation will be taking the case to court. And in Shreveport, Louisiana, public outcry and civil disobedience led to city council rewriting zoning ordinances and granting an exemption for what would have otherwise required a commercial permit.
Requiring permits for Little Free Libraries would all but prevent them from ever existing. As it is, they require effort to build and maintain – effort, of course, that some residents are happy to invest when the return is more community interaction, as well as making books more accessible. Hopefully sanity will prevail, despite irrational resistance.