The Public Library as an (Almost) Open-Source Institution

Diversification Is Good, Collaboration Is Better

Little Free Libraryboxen

Public libraries tend to concentrate themselves in strategically-placed buildings so as to be effective at serving the majority of their populations. "Majority", however, does not mean "everyone", and for very rural people, or people who don't/can't cross various parts of their urban or rural space, public library service would be limited to any outreach the library does to their neighborhoods. Which can be nice, but is no substitute for being able to utilize all of the library's resources on a regular basis.

There's also the question of permanence for many objects. If I bought a paperback to read, and I have no intention of keeping it after I have finished reading it, what do I do with it? Donating it to the library will likely have it put into a book sale to raise money for the library, which means another person will pay a greatly reduced price for it and be able to enjoy the book (and possibly re-donate it when they are done, continuing to generate money for the library.). For some people, they want the books they are discarding to be read on a wider scale than one at a time, with a single price. For others, they want to have collections of materials freely available, but they can't trek to their library on a regular basis. And still others are trying to find ways of distributing their own materials on a wider scale without the benefit of a large publishing company behind them.

Enter Little Free Libraries. A Little Free Library (LFL) is a physical structure where the community surrounding it can exchange books, and possibly, other materials, and those materials will be protected from the elements and destructive abilities of the outdoors while they wait to be taken to a new home.

While you can purchase a ready-built Little Free Library for your area, there are also plans and guides available for people to build their own Little Free Libraries, with no set requirement on what a Little Free Library looks like. (Little Free Libraries would like a person that builds a LFL to register and pay a one-time fee to make it Official, though.) The Little Free Libraries are basically an open-source method for physical content exchange and distribution. Once built and placed, the community around can share their materials with each other. It's not a complete package of library services, but a public library with an outreach program might be persuadable to set up outreach stops near Little Free Libraries so as to provide a fuller library experience in those areas. If the Little Free Library is a busy one, it's already a guarantee that members of the community are going there. Your public library will hopefully understand that they don't have to search for a spot to reach your community if there's already one there to take advantage of. If not, explain it to them.

The Little Free Libraries concept covers physical materials (for the most part, anyway) that the community can exchange. What about digital materials? How cool would it be, in our increasingly gadget-filled world, to be able to offer a collection of hundreds of free e-books for our devices? Stop by the Little Free Library, exchange a few physical books, download hundreds more to your e-reader.

Jason Griffey has just the thing for you. Building on David Darts' idea for the PirateBox, an anonymous, peer-to-peer file-sharing, chat, and forum device restricted to the range of a wireless router running a customized build of OpenWRT, a rooted Android phone running the app, or other PirateBox setups for computers and routers, Griffey removed the ability for people connected to the device to upload content (because while public libraries are sharing institutions, they can only share as much as the law and any permissions granted allows them to) but otherwise kept the core of the PirateBox intact, and called it the LibraryBox. Since neither PirateBox nor LibraryBox requires an Internet connection, it's a perfect way of setting up content distribution in remote areas, areas with spotty connections, or anywhere else that someone would want to have a cache of electronic materials available for download without needing an Internet connection. LibraryBoxen also have the ability to synchronize themselves with a master box, so a public library that used a LibraryBox for distributing programming materials could easily update the available materials during an outreach stop, letting the master box change out the materials on the subordinate boxes.