So far, we’ve only “published” a couple of pieces on the project thus far. Here they are!
Schmidt, Jane. (May 1, 2016). The Trouble With Twee. Open Shelf. http://www.open-shelf.ca/160501-twee/
Schmidt, Jane. Little Free Libraries®: The Trouble With Twee Solutions To Big Problems. (invited talk) Disrupt and Transform: The British Columbia Library Conference, 2016. Slides available here.
… more to come.
Today, I sent this open letter to the chair of the Little Free Libraries® Board of Directors to let them know that I was officially withdrawing myself and my book exchange from the organization. I left the members-only Facebook stewards group and unfollowed them on Twitter. I removed the sign from my book exchange and kluged something temporary for a re-“brand” until I can get around to making something more permanent. Maybe I’ll try and use one of them fancy 3D printers the folks at the real library have been talking up!
In short, I have come to the conclusion that affiliation with a non-profit organization lead by an individual who identifies as an entrepreneur is completely unnecessary for sharing books with your neighbours. The benefits of membership (as they say) are shaky at best – vapid mail-out content on how to promote yourself and the LFL® brand, where to find cheap books and getting one’s self placed on a map are not exactly worthy of paying dues. Nothing this organization offers is something that can’t be done with an internet connection and the will of a passionate group of loosely organized people*. For the reasons I outlined in the letter, I don’t think that supporting this organization is a constructive use of my energy.
As I’ve said before, I am most certainly not opposed to neighbours sharing books with each other. It’s a lovely idea and I encourage those who want to run and unbranded exchange to do so. But libraries aren’t free, nor are they little, nor are they something to be trademarked that comes with terms and conditions. It’s a box of books for the taking, people. As simple as that.
*cases in point: here are a couple of creations made entirely independently of LFL® by individuals – it’s worth pointing out that LFL® outsources their web development.
The #lflproject is ticking along very nicely. There is a forthcoming article in Open Shelf: the magazine of the OLA, the outline for the major paper is taking shape and making sense. Jordan and I have a Way Forward to knock this out of the park.
We spent a day deliberating over what we want to say about LFL, how we want to say it, and who we want to hear it.We’re both in agreement that the wider audience and the more easily understood the message, the better to suit our goals.
And on that note, we’re very excited to announce that we’ve been invited to speak about the research so far at the British Columbia Library Association Conference! This year’s theme is Disrupt and Transform – appropriate for sure given our topic. Sadly, I’ll be going solo (well, sadly only because Jordan can’t come, but awesome otherwise) to represent the work, but we are both pretty excited to be associated with this esteemed event. The title of the talk is Little Free Libraries®: the trouble with twee solutions to big problems. Here’s the abstract. If you are planning on coming to BCLA, I hope to see you there!
I’ve not said much about the project since it was launched back in September. In the interest of sharing imperfectly, here’s an update!
Jordan and I have a dataset to work through (big ups to Jordan for her mad skills – I followed maybe 2% of what she was doing with ArcGIS) and we’ve been able to confirm several suspicions. We’ve got a dissemination plan, but just have to get going on it. That’s always the hard part, isn’t it? I’ve been running my LFL® with some success – it’s pretty well used but I’m sure I haven’t radically changed anyone’s life for the better just yet. I’ll leave that to the great folks over at TPL (insert tip of cap here). Otherwise, I’m trying to wrap my head around some critical theories to use as frameworks as we move forward with the analysis. This is outside of my comfort zone and is slow going.
In no particular order, here are some random thoughts I’ve had about the project that I intend to further probe, a couple of months in.
- This is totally a trend among the middle class – even strangers I speak to agree that it’s quite trendy. We already have our suspicions about the quality of material available in LFL® … what happens when we hit Peak Urban Whimsy and every other house has one in their front yard? I’ve already been privy to several steward conversations about how to drum up traffic. Why would you even run one if nobody is interested? I really don’t get this. I’m trying, but I don’t understand the motivation.
- What does this say about our consumerist society? We have so much stuff kicking around that we don’t value enough to keep for ourselves, but can’t bear to recycle. Other people must be interested in my old VHS tapes and ancient diet books, mustn’t they?
- Are neighbourhood book exchanges the Uber of the library world? Is this a bold new direction in the sharing economy and Big Society? If so, what impact does that have on actual libraries?
- What do authors think of LFL®? Particularly when their publishers participate in “takeovers” (yes, it’s a thing)? LFL®, or any other neighbourhood book exchange program, aren’t covered by a Public Lending Right program. Authors definitely got their knickers in a knot (and rightly so – for many reasons, not the least of which remuneration) over the Toronto Public Library’s ill fated “sell your books to us” project; why have we not heard much about where they stand on this alterna-library trend? Margaret Atwood, if you are reading (!!) this, tell us what you think!
- Why does everyone love these things so darned much? The installation in Newmarket was a fascinating case study. What is it about a pseudo-library branch (not actually a library branch) that everyone finds so charming? I’ve seen commentary on aesthetics and the power of delight to capture the public’s imagination. What can public libraries do to learn from the success (working definition of success still up in the air, for sure) of LFL®? What is it about LFL® that makes people feel good while public libraries are standing by and wondering “what’s wrong with us?”.
…. only half-formed thoughts at the moment. Commentary and discussion welcome!
The Little Free Library® (LFL) phenomenon has been growing exponentially since its start in 2009. News of these little libraries that anyone can put up on their property has been spreading through the media with countless stories of their community building potential and their contribution to improved literacy. It has thus far been my observation that there has been very little critique of the movement. I’m aiming to change that.
“Wait, what could you possibly have against such a nice idea? Who doesn’t love sharing books?”
Yes, yes, aren’t they adorable? Aren’t they nice? Sure. Are they libraries? Absolutely not. I have no issue with community book exchanges. What I do have an issue with is an non-profit organization co-opting the concept of libraries to create an empire for what is essentially a glorified way to recycle books you no longer wish to keep.
I’m going to be probing several angles of this phenomenon. I really want to know if this organization is (inadvertently) undermining the mission and progress of public and school libraries. We all know that they are not free and inherently complex organizations to sustain. Is a community of well-intentioned people who are clearly dedicated to literacy actually hurting real libraries? LFL® posits itself as a growing organization that is creating positive impact in book deserts and enhancing literacy and community (much like actual libraries, but I needn’t rant further on that one… for now). Those are big claims. How do they measure up?
I’m approaching this in various ways:
- I decided to get up close and personal with my research topic and got myself a chartered LFL®. How else to understand how they work than to run one? I’m giving myself permission to change my mind and grow to appreciate it, but in order to really work through how I feel about them, I have to participate.
- I’m calling in a pro. Jordan Hale, of U of T GIS fame, has graciously agreed to help me out with the mapping aspect of this research. We’re going to investigate the predominate socio-economic profile of the Canadian neighbourhoods in which LFL®’s are most prominent, and fact check some of these book desert claims they make. I’m really excited about this part of the research – not only do I get to work with Jordan and learn a bit about something new, but this is a really meaty bit of primary research. Good fun.
- I’ll be combing through quite a bit of media coverage to draw some conclusions about the dominant discourse that has been created. I haven’t determined the parameters of this part yet, so don’t have much more detail to offer.
- How, exactly, are LFL®s different from libraries? How do their mission statements and values match up? How do they contrast? What are LFL®s not doing that real libraries do? This may seem self evident to those in the know, but it never hurts to plainly state that which can sometimes be taken for granted. Especially when we are living in a society where people like Rob & Doug Ford have significant power and the Birmingham Public Library has to stop buying books and asks for donations instead.
There are about a zillion other angles that have popped to mind as I work through the topic. I have to decide what is within my capacity given the time I’ve got available, and at what point I have to limit my curiousity or go through an ethics approval to go further. Such is the excitement of a new research project!