Today I was interviewed on Zoom by a freelance reporter from the Ithaca Times, our local free newspaper. She was writing an article about the local Little Free Libraries. The experience was wonderful in so many ways. We hit it off immediately. She inspired me to write about my experience designing and building my LFL.
An aside: My interviewer is a young CU pre-med graduate living only a few miles from my daughter and grandchildren in the Baltimore area. Talk about small world! We had many other interests in common – fashion for those with disabilities, sociology, medicine. (I’m the daughter of a pediatrician, a retired nurse, a former teacher of deaf children, and my late husband was a sociologist. Imagine that! What are the chances?!)
OK, here’s the real story: Two years ago I rescued an abandoned dollhouse from the side of the road. At the time, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I couldn’t just let it get damaged by weather or taken to the dump.
Around that time I began to be aware of how many Little Free Libraries I was seeing on my walks and drives around town. Each one was different in some way. Some looked to be made from a kit and some had elements of individuality added by the owner. Sometimes it was an elaborately decorated mounting post, sometimes it was details added to the little doors or windows, sometimes it was a sign painted to attract people to stop and look.
I decided that my neighborhood needed a LFL. There are 44 houses on our long street, with 3 offshooting smaller streets. We are surrounded by a half-dozen large apartment complexes.
It’s a very active scene – people walk, run, bike, skate, roller-blade, parade their dogs, or stroll with babies, friends or family. There are three colleges and many technology businesses within 20 miles. We are “25 Miles surrounded by Reality” (to quote a local bumper sticker). I would guess that every age, culture, race, religion, gender identity, ethnicity, and level of ability or education is represented within walking distance of my home.
My art-making shop’s main activities, hosting parties in the studio or “on-the-go” at other venues, were on pause since March 2020. My Art Maker-Paks were being sold on Etsy, at the Lime Hollow Nature Center and at Brookton’s Market in Brooktondale, NY. I donated dozens of Art Maker-Paks to various non-profits or schools in the area. Other than that, my studio was very quiet. And I was missing all the action.
Looking at that laminated wooden dollhouse, I had a lot of engineering questions: How to cover up the open windows for rainproofing? How to protect the wooden hinged roof? How would readers be able to keep the roof open to get the books out? Where would I put the LFL for best safe access on a busy road?
I went after the practical issues first. No point decorating the dollhouse if I couldn’t put it up in a functional way. My first job was to figure out how to mount the dollhouse. And with my usual focus on using mostly reused materials, I didn’t want to have to buy lumber.
My home is located on land in front of DeWitt Middle School’s woods and soccer field. Fall Creek flows southward through that woods into Cayuga Lake. In my back yard, there is a smaller creek that runs past all the houses on our side of the road, carrying rainwater into Fall Creek.
A friend of mine loved bridges. She lived downtown on a street with no creek, but she had a bridge built for her back yard nonetheless. Her friends called it “The Bridge to Nowhere”. Years ago, after she passed away from breast cancer, I bought her beautiful wooden bridge from her daughter and placed it over that smaller creek.
A couple of years ago, the Town of Ithaca dredged the culvert in front of the houses on my end of Burleigh Dr. and installed new drainage pipes, after neighbors complained about flooded basements. When the culvert was a foot wide, the neighborhood kids on their way to or from school would jump the culvert and often cut through my yard. Maybe some thought it was a park. (There’s a lot of yard art there, and no fence). Once the Town doubled the width of that culvert, I witnessed a teenager try to jump the culvert and miss, landing on the rocks at the bottom of the culvert.
“Not OK,” I thought. “I don’t want someone to get hurt in my front yard!”. So I moved the Sunny Bat-Or Memorial Bridge from my little creek in the back yard to the front yard over the culvert. My husband built a new bridge over the little creek out of recycled lumber that was hanging out behind our shed, left over from some of our home improvement projects.
Now I had a place to put my Little Free Library! My next job was to figure out how to attach it to the bridge once it was decorated. After consulting with my “I’m not a carpenter” husband, we found the four-by-four post and platform which used to hold our mailbox before it was knocked over by a snowplow years ago. Perfect!
I went on a little tour of my art studio, with the goal in mind of finding materials with which to decorate the outside of the LFL Paint wouldn’t do. Too ordinary. Most Little Free Libraries were painted. Besides, as an artist, I’m more of an assemblage/collage person and less of a painter.
Then I spotted the stack of old CD’s. They used to be upstairs in a living room drawer recently downsized; I hadn’t listened to them in so many years that they no longer appealed to me. The closer I looked at each CD, the more differences in reflected colors and configuration of the center hole I found. Some had writing on them, some didn’t. The trick was to find enough similar ones to use a different color for each segment of the wall of the LFL.
I measured the sides and realized I couldn’t use any whole CD’s. For hours I experimented with different cutting methods until I came up with a way to cut them smoothly with my giant paper-cutter without cracking off the coating or leaving rough edges. Then came the jigsaw puzzle part – trying to fit the pieces of CD’s in a uniform way so that there was a recognizable pattern of color and shape
Once that was accomplished, I needed a way to fill the negative space between the CD’s. One of the other hats I wear is as a Home Organizer. I had recently helped a retired professor downsize her office and ended up with a donation of dozens of clear colored plastic folders. I cut them into triangles and Voila! Connections!
After experimenting with staples and glues on scrap wood, I realized I would need tiny screws to attach both the CD’s and the colored plastic triangles to the wooden sides of the LFL. Fortunately, I love to take apart defunct electronics for art pieces, so I had lots of mini-screws.
Now for the open windows. I used to mat, frame and sell my own photographs and sometimes used plexiglass instead of glass in the frames. For rainproofing I cut some plexiglass and acrylic picture frames. After screwing them inside the dollhouse, I used aquarium silicone to waterproof the perimeters. Before adding books to the LFL, I did an overnight rain test. I was thrilled when there were no leaks!
A few years ago, the local History Museum was moving its location and giving away accessories. I lucked into some wooden lettering which had been used for displays. I wanted to make a sign that said “READ”. I happened to have a box frame leftover from my photography days. I cut up some colorful reused play mats to support the letters. I also had taken apart a piano that was about to be driven to the dump and used the parts for art. Did you ever notice that a piano hammer resembles a cockeyed letter “A”? After hot-gluing in the letters, I screwed plexiglass sheets to the sides of the box frame and sealed them with silicone aquarium sealant.
I figured out that when people open the roof, they need both hands to get a book out, so I needed some way to prop the roof open. Piano keys from that dismantled piano were the perfect size, so I printed out an instruction phrase on my trusty label-maker and placed two props in the LFL.
To keep the roof closed during storms, I purchased super-strong recycled computer magnets from our local ReUse Center and screwed them to the inside walls and to the roof. The trick is to stack the books so that the magnets can make contact!
The roof itself is corrugated metal that I obtained from a request on FreeCycle. Its handle is a blingy high-heeled shoe rescued from a friend who is a shoe sales representative before he put his samples in the landfill.
Because I have eight grandchildren ranging in age from 2 to 31, scattered all over the country, I had collected hundreds of children’s books over the years. So far that stash has been my source, since no one is spending the night now anyhow, because of COVID-19. My husband and I downsized our personal book collections and I asked a few friends for giveaways of adult books in the beginning.
I decided that I wanted to register my Little Free Library on the official map for the international organization. The donation for the official plaque with my LFL number on it goes to support others who want to spread this wonderful idea around. Since I am registered, one can find my LFL by my name, my zip code, or my city. I love the idea that one could plan a trip (once COVID is behind us) to visit all the LFL’s in a particular area.
Now, the LFL seems to be self-sustaining. I go out there every few days and there are always new books to marvel at. It’s interesting to see what people are reading. Or not reading – maybe they are giving away unwanted gifts, who knows. Anyway, the whole process is a lot of fun, a way to connect with neighbors, and to give back to those who have helped me in so many ways over the years. Paying it forward feels really good.