Small free libraries offering solace amid virus shutdowns

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Kerri Kaplan, a fifth grade teacher, stands next to a small library she has in her front yard in Phoenix, Ariz., on Friday, April 17, 2020. As government orders shuttered public libraries to slow the spread of coronavirus, some have turned to official and unofficial book-sharing means to satisfy their desire for new reading material. (AP Photo/Michelle A. Monroe)

Christine Gale Reynolds worked at the public library in Yosemite National Park before it closed in March when California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued shutdown orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus. So, she filled the back of her car with donated books and began her own mobile library.

“I know this may not be legal, conventional, or ethically sound, and yet it has worked for many, and I feel of use,” she said. She physically distances while making her stops and sanitizes the books.

Across the United States, volunteers are reporting a jump in little free libraries as readers look to pass the time. Made of wood or brick, and placed in front of parks or in the trunk of a car, the libraries have seen their small spaces overwhelmed with books.

Whether it's “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel García Márquez or children's books or Macbeth, the libraries provide some their only interaction of the day outside of the home.

Since 2009, tens of thousands of little free libraries have sprung up in the U.S. and more than 100 countries. The small spaces operate by donations and through volunteers. In rural areas, where broadband internet is sparse, the little free libraries may be only place to find a Toni Morrison novel.

In March, the Hudson, Wisconsin-based Little Free Library nonprofit group unveiled its 100,000th book-sharing box — donated to the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans in a historic Latino neighborhood in Houston.

The free libraries have become so popular in recent weeks the Little Free Library group issued recommendations to stewards on helping keep the spaces clean by using disinfectant and following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“We have definitely seen an increase in use,” said John Sweet, who helps oversee a free library in Bend, Oregon. He said volunteers check their free library weekly, and the selection is always different than the week before; sometimes there are even jigsaw puzzles.