Tootle through a Silicon Valley residential neighborhood and you’re bound to eventually spot one hugging a street or sidewalk: a brightly colored box one might easily mistake for an oversized mailbox. Peek inside. Instead of letters and packages, the glass door reveals biographies, murder mysteries, young adult novels and pulp fiction. They’re all free. Take one. Leave one.

Inspired by existing Little Free Library (LFL) “branches,” residents within the Los Altos-Los Altos Hills-Mountain View community have constructed more than 50 of their own. Cathy Harkness of Los Altos dedicated her Queensbury Avenue branch to “anyone who doesn’t consider themselves a ‘reader’ yet." Mountain View resident Erin Brownfield’s branch, on Hamilton Avenue, was a birthday gift to her 4-year-old son because he wasn’t tall enough to reach into those built for adults. 

Approximately nine years ago, Los Altos resident Jen McGuigan’s family admired an LFL in Palo Alto. Her daughter, Kate, told her grandparents about the discovery.

“Lo and behold, that Christmas, my parents showed up to our house with a fully built-from-scratch Little Free Library,” McGuigan said. “And it’s hands down one of the most memorable gifts that my parents have given their grandchildren.”

Although the McGuigans stocked their LFL with an initial donation of reading material geared toward young adults, it has largely operated autonomously since then with contributions from neighbors and random passersby. Among the more recent additions are former First Lady Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming,” “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway, a tour guide for Provence and the Côte d’Azur and a book about the sharks and rays native to California coasts.

“I love it because I’ve seen delivery people who have dropped off a box at my house run over to see what’s in there,” McGuigan said. “Or guys who are doing construction in the neighborhood use it. And that just warms my heart. I get the biggest kick out of seeing people enjoy it.”

Worldwide expansion

LFL founder Todd Bol of Hudson, Wis., built the first official branch in 2009. He constructed his library in the shape of a schoolhouse to honor his mother, a teacher who loved to read, stocked it with books and installed the structure on a post in his front yard. His project garnered the support of his community, which appreciated the “take-a-book-leave-a-book” concept, and it attracted the attention of Rick Brooks, a University of Wisconsin-Madison outreach program manager. Together, Bol and Brooks grew the LFL network and registered their endeavor as a nonprofit in 2012.

Madison and Minneapolis hosted the first LFLs, the cities serving as testing grounds to determine whether the idea would “strike a chord with people,” said Margret Aldrich, LFL director of communications.

It did.

There are now more than 100,000 LFLs located in all 50 states as well as within 110 countries. Annually, they facilitate the exchange of more than 42 million books. 

LFL reached an impressive milestone just last year: In December, Russell Schnell, a Boulder, Colo., resident and atmospheric scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, helped the nonprofit reach all seven continents by erecting charter No. 115933 at the South Pole.

“Books with photos of colorful trees, warm deserts, water, beaches, wheat fields and animals and birds are popular at the South Pole,” Schnell said, according to an LFL blog post. “Everything else is white for hundreds of miles in all directions.”

Express yourself

Approximately half of LFL stewards purchase official kits from the organization, and the rest do it themselves. Homemade versions include libraries shaped like roosters, Victorian mansions, VW buses and gingerbread houses. Some feature planters for flowers, and at least one McGuigan has encountered is fashioned from a wine barrel.

In North Saint Paul, Minn., steward Trudy O. created a library using an antique clock and stationed it outside a historical home built in 1887. There’s a designated children’s section on the lowest shelf and a secret compartment in the base.

When asked to describe their favorite LFL designs, both McGuigan and Aldrich mentioned Sharalee Armitage Howard, a librarian, artist and bookbinder living in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. When city officials told Howard the dead 110-year-old cottonwood tree in her front yard posed a safety hazard and required removal, she instructed the arborists hired for the job to leave behind a stump approximately the height of a single-story home. A glass-paneled door fringed by miniature replicas of classics like “The Hobbit,” “Little Women” and “Call of the Wild” invites visitors to a carved-out interior. Multiple illuminated shelves within house the ever-changing collection.

“That was pretty spectacular,” Aldrich said.

Pandemic-fueled growth

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, stewards like the McGuigans have reported a significant increase in activity around their LFL, and the organization noted an uptick in the number of charters established as well, Aldrich said. She attributes demand both to the temporary closure of traditional libraries and schools and to the feelings of isolation some people in lockdown experienced.

“Little Free Libraries and sharing books through Little Free Libraries with your neighbors was really one way to feel like we’re still all in this together even when we have to be apart,” Aldrich said.

The McGuigans discovered their LFL presented a means for staying connected.

“People would show up at the Little Free Library, and we would have an excuse to go out there, keep our distance, stand in our yard and have a chat with people,” McGuigan said. “So that was really nice. And, as a joke, I put toilet paper and hand sanitizer in the Little Free Library, and it was taken.”

For more information on the Little Free Library organization, including how to establish a branch, visit littlefreelibrary.org. A map on the website marks the location of LFLs worldwide, including within the Los Altos-Los Altos Hills-Mountain View area.