Free the Little Free Libraries!

Oh, what, you assumed those charming handmade bookshelves that popped up all over in recent years were free, beyond the reach of overzealous government officials?

Apparently not in Shreveport.

On the strength of a single complaint, the city’s Metropolitan Planning Commission has shut down a private box where people can donate and pick up books and has said it would crack down on others if someone asks. The problem, city officials say, is that libraries are only allowed in commercial zones.

Now, I’m not one to cry overreach at the first hint of restrictions. Sorry, smokers, but color me thrilled that I’ll soon be able to grab a drink at any New Orleans watering hole and know that I won’t smell like an ashtray afterward, and I hope to soon have that right in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, as well.

But seriously, Shreveport, what’s the problem here? How could the possible harm outweigh the benefit?

For those who aren’t up on the concept, the Little Free Library movement is nothing more than a grass-roots effort by book lovers to share their passion, to get books in front of people’s eyes and into their hands. Sponsors range from individual families to churches to civic-minded groups. The libraries, generally wooden boxes mounted on poles, function as something of an honor-system swap; you take a book, you leave one. Or don’t. It all works out.

Do they attract boisterous crowds or cause parking nightmares or traffic jams, like the bars and big-box stores and strip malls that generally occupy zoning officials’ minds? If only.

Instead, they’re mostly there to be stumbled upon on a daily walk, bike ride or drive. Discovering one is pure serendipity, similar to the experience of picking up a random book that it turns out you can’t put down.

The more purposeful readers can find the locations of some, but definitely not all, on an online registry, complete with a map and a spreadsheet that allows the sponsors to tell their stories.

There they can read about Phyllis Glover, of Morgan City, an elementary school librarian who lives near a park and wanted to make sure kids had access to books, no strings attached. And Girl Scout Troop 10324 in Baton Rouge, which wanted to “give the gift of reading to students who may not have that option.” And Ray Blum, of Lafayette, who says the Little Free Library at his apartment complex is used nearly daily, and offers books in Russian, Arabic and Spanish.

In New Orleans, one Little Free Library sits on the grounds of a real one, the Milton H. Latter Memorial Library on St. Charles Avenue. It’s dedicated to the memory of Diana Pinckley, who reviewed mysteries for The Times-Picayune and co-founded the local chapter of the Women’s National Book Association.

Clearly, the library system’s not worried about competition.

Actually, there’s sadly little competition these days for the eyeballs of those who love to browse. Brick and mortar bookstores are in trouble; some public libraries are, too. In New Orleans, the system’s finances are in dire shape; if voters don’t approve a new millage in May, officials warn that they may not be able to afford to keep all branches open. More on that in a future column.

For now, though, consider this a plea for common-sense regulation from the city of Shreveport, and perhaps for a bit more. How about a concerted statement that literacy is a civic good, an acknowledgement that the more readers you have, the better — no matter where their material comes from?

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.