Last year, I wrote a column about the future of libraries and dubbed them "cerebral cathedrals." In it, I referred to the burning of the library of Alexandria some 2000 years ago. Its demise was arguably the greatest tragedy in mankind’s history of understanding. Modeled after Aristotle’s Lyceum, it was a place to collect and make available for study all the knowledge in world.
This past week, a friend called my attention that some Vermonters have decided to bring a slice of old Egypt to their neighborhoods.
Enter the phenomenon of Little Free Library, which can be found at www.littlefreelibrary.org, a national organization promoting local grass roots building of quaint structures for free book lending.
In the debate over education, literacy, and the slipping academic performance of American students, Little Free Library is exactly the type civic engagement we need nationwide.
As difficult as it is to finance schools, libraries face greater challenges. Since much of their enrichment equity remains discretionary, so does their funding. Even strongly supported municipal libraries struggle with budgets and must rely on volunteerism and fundraising from auxiliaries. All of this affects literacy.
In Vermont alone, private citizens have stepped forward to answer the governing body’s threefold mission. In Wilmington, Barton, Huntington, Essex Junction and Arlington, Little Free Libraries are thriving as a result of these initiatives.
According to its website, the first charge of Little Free Library is to promote literacy and love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide. When holding a book, whether scholarly or frivolous, the ability to read and access information is the foundation on which all education is built.
The next goal is to create a sense of community as we share skills, creativity, and wisdom across generations. Such legacies are vital to the place we call home, and the people around us. Just as my father took me to baseball games and I took my son, so also must a rite of passage be affixed to the love of learning. When that flow of erudition hits the flood stage, we’ll have come a long way to building up our riverbanks of knowledge.
Finally, Little Free Library wants to construct more than 2,510 libraries around the world - more than Andrew Carnegie, as they put it - and then some. Judging by the present number of more than 2,300, they seem well on pace.
Which brings us back to these corners of Vermont hosting Little Free Libraries. In scanning titles offered up by local citizens, they range from literary classics to non-fiction exposes and some nice children’s offerings. Many of the books are professionally labeled. Some structures are lit so night owls won’t miss them; others have creative designs, such as the Dr. Seuss motif in Barton.
In sensing the passion of our neighbors who raised these cozy repositories, we must consider libraries at a crossroads between the heritage of the 19th century and the demands of the 21st. Today libraries have an opportunity to sustain traditional roles while developing fresh visions of service - in short, to become sanctuaries for the world of ideas.
In this light, Little Free Library brings to mind the poet E.E. Cummings, who once wrote:
"i am a little church (no great cathedral)/ far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities/ -i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest/ i am not sorry when sun and rain make april"
The Little Free Libraries in Vermont may not match Alexandria, but they are the Green Mountain State’s little churches of the mind. Hopefully, more people will get the bug and raise one, and others stop by to borrow a book and celebrate knowledge. And somebody please give their stewards the keys to a cathedral.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org