Essay: In Defense of “Unregulated” Little Free Libraries

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) thinks the little free libraries along many Chicago sidewalks are bad—very bad. They are “unregulated”! And they’re “popular”! And many of them are planted in city soil! (Collective gasp.)

That’s what he told Quinn Myers of Block Club Chicago recently, making these tiny book repositories sound like the height of criminality. And he wants to crack down on them hard.

I’m against that. And so is my one-year-old grandson Ulysses.

No doubt you’ve seen one of these free libraries if you’ve done much walking along Chicago’s streets. A simple box atop a pedestal, usually of wood, often with a glass door that lets you look inside. If you see something you like, you can take it out. If you have something you want to give away, you can leave it.

Yeah, the height of criminality.

That’s how Lopez sees it. After all, little free libraries located on the city’s parkway don’t have city permission—and haven’t paid a fee—to be there. Lord knows what might happen next. Gardens in the parkway? A quiet bench? It’s a slippery slope.

It’s a way to share the bookish wealth and to protect the environment by keeping these volumes in circulation.

And, maybe worst of all, these small literary outposts are being erected by private citizens! Taking the law, or at least the land, into their own hands!

Think of it: Jane Chicagoan decides that she likes books but has too many of them. She also likes the environment and knows that American society is producing more garbage than it can deal with.

So, she decides to put up a little library box on the parkway where passersby can easily take books out and put books in. It’s a way to share the bookish wealth and to protect the environment by keeping these volumes in circulation.

But Lopez apparently can’t see the value of being able to walk up to a little free library and leave with a copy of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, or of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling, or Lords of the Levee: The Story of Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink by Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan. Or the value of having Jane Chicagoan take pride in making the city parkway something more than a strip of grass with (maybe) a tree.

No, the ordinance he proposed this summer won’t even let Jane Chicagoan put up a little free library.

Indeed, these book cupboards are such a threat to civic life in Chicago that, according to Lopez, they should only be erected by “organizations, not-for-profit entities and licensed businesses”—with, of course, a public way use permit.

Photo credit Patrick T. Reardon

On October 3, the Lopez ordinance was approved without discussion by the City Council’s Committee on Transportation and Public Way and went before the full council the next day. There, however, the vote was delayed on a motion by Alderpersons Daniel LaSpata (31st) and Maria Hadden (49th).

Maybe that’s a good sign. I hope so. I’m a fan of the little free libraries, and so is Ulysses even though, at 16-months, he can’t read yet.

When I take him for a walk, I often stop at one of those book boxes, and he quickly has his arm out as a signal he wants a book from inside. Ulysses likes turning the pages and looking at the pictures, even if the book is upside down.

I think of the little free libraries as small early schools for him to learn the joy and wonder of reading. Jane Chicagoan knows all about the joy and wonder of reading, so do all the other people who put up and use these delightful little book boxes.

Does Alderman Lopez know that joy and wonder? I wonder.

Patrick T. Reardon
Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).