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Princeton’s Little Free Libraries celebrate first anniversary

Patty Gibson enjoys using her Little Free Library to help provide books for neighborhood children and to promote local authors. Here, her grandson, Levi Brisbois, has selected one of his favorites from the custom, family-built library located next to her home. Gibson said they've also had out-of-state visitors who enjoy seeing the often uniquely designed or decorated little libraries as they tour different areas.
Patty Gibson enjoys using her Little Free Library to help provide books for neighborhood children and to promote local authors. Here, her grandson, Levi Brisbois, has selected one of his favorites from the custom, family-built library located next to her home. Gibson said they've also had out-of-state visitors who enjoy seeing the often uniquely designed or decorated little libraries as they tour different areas.

About a year ago, the Little Free Library (LFL) movement made its debut in Princeton. The small, colorful and uniquely decorated libraries have become part of the city’s attractions, and no matter where you live, there’s likely one within a short walk.

They began in 2009 in Wisconsin and were founded by Todd Bol and current Princeton resident Rick Brooks. The idea has received international attention, and there are now more than 50,000 registered locations in more than 70 countries .

At this time, there are approximately 15 spread throughout Princeton, and they all encourage visitors to freely take a book or leave a book. Each has an independent steward who manages the collection and ensures it remains in good condition.

“They represent the uniqueness of the community in addition to promoting reading. Princeton values culture, education and art, and the Little Free Libraries bring those values to the public in a fun and convenient way,” Princeton Public Library (PPL) Director Julie Wayland said.

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Wayland said the initial goal was to have the libraries located on the major streets in Princeton, but added they’ve become so popular, they’ve also spread into area businesses and the surrounding neighborhoods. 

“We love being a part of this book sharing, reading promoting and community building project. Our LFL, if anything, provides an example of the type of community we strive to be, open, sharing and engaged,” Sallee Zearing, co-owner of The Flour House Bakery said.

The PPL has made a brochure featuring the locations in Princeton and will add to the list as it grows. So far, the city has more than 10, and two more will soon be put up as the weather warms.

“The simple existence of them in a community gives the message that books are important here, and we like sharing them. It encourages passers-by to ‘take a book, leave a book’ and to stop and visit with other book-lovers,” PPL curator Margaret Martinkus said.

Martinkus was also hopeful they’re encouraging more visits to the library.

“It’s a good testimonial to our mission to offer lifelong reading and partner with the community. My favorite part has been the involvement of the many community groups who saw the value in this program. It’s a great example to show our children too, one they can see right out on the street,” she said.

The library of Patty Gibson actually pre-dates Princeton’s official involvement in the program. She received her inspiration after seeing the little libraries during a trip to Wisconsin. Her family’s library even has its own Facebook page.

Built by a family member and located next to her home on a cul-de-sac, Gibson said the library is helping to encourage neighborhood children to read.

“We’ve also had out-of-state visitors come to see our library, and they ask for directions to where the others in town are; people love them,” she said.

Gibson uses her library to help promote local authors and children’s books and is also an active member of the international stewards’ Facebook group which provides advice to supporters around the world.   

“It’s been exciting to see the interest grow, not only in Princeton but in other towns throughout Bureau, LaSalle and Putnam counties. The enthusiastic support of the Princeton Public Library really got the ball rolling here, and each new LFL seems to have its own unique character and patrons,” Brooks said.

There are currently LFLs in front of the Prouty Building, the First Christian Church, the Prairie Arts Council, PHS, the Bureau County Historical Society and several other locations. There are also libraries inside The Flour House, The Makery and the train depot. One of the newest will be located near the entrance of Zearing Park.

Brooks said the library at the Open Prairie church helped inspire many others, and the garden-related library at the pollinator garden at the PPL inspired a second, larger one at the Gateway Services garden on West Peru Street.  

There’s also one located in Dover, and Brooks said the LFL at the Willow Springs Mennonite Church near Tiskilwa attracts rural cyclists as well as church-goers.

The libraries often become destinations for people to visit during their evening and weekend walks, and people can be seen taking or donating books.

“A lot of people have a story of seeing them in other communities and enjoy the creative designs. We’ve had groups come in after seeing them, wanting to put one at their business or church, and I’ve also noticed since we did our campaign other communities have also begun installing LFL’s. It makes us feel like trendsetters,” Martinkus said.  

Putnam County will soon be adding the LFLs to their communities.

“We’re looking for partners to help build them, but haven’t found anybody yet. Once we do, we fully intend to move forward because they’re perfect for us. We serve the entire county, and there are many rural residents who live quite a distance from any of the branch libraries,” Putnam County Library Director Jay Kalman said.

Brooks said the secret to success is the stewardship, not only by the person who installs or hosts the library, but also by the people who give and take the books.

“Remember ... anybody can put books in or take them; that’s one of the strengths of this idea, freedom of expression,” he said.

For more information visit the Princeton Public Library or visit www.littlefreelibrary.org.

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