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Without a Library, One Community's Interim Fix Took on 'A Life of Its Own'

By Linze Rice | December 8, 2015 5:46am
 Three Free Little Libraries that can all be found along just one street in Edgewater.
Three Free Little Libraries that can all be found along just one street in Edgewater.
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DNAinfo/Linze Rice

EDGEWATER — In Edgewater, it's hard to walk more than a block or two without running into a library.

Not the big brick ones you'd need a pass for — but about 40 or so free, take-a-book/leave-a-book, handmade miniature libraries.

They're called Little Free Libraries, and in just two years the Far North Side community has churned them out onto nearly every street, making books available to anyone.

"I'll give it six weeks," said Tom Welch, a local education consultant and Edgewater Chamber of Commerce board member, describing the pessimism he felt after constructing the neighborhood's first.

Edgewater has an actual library, too, at 6000 N. Broadway. But in 2011 when the original single-story library was torn down and a $13.5 million replacement was in the works, the community's main reading resource was gone.

Other neighborhoods have Little Free Libraries as well, but in Edgewater they bring out something special in the community's character, Welch said.

"We really look at this as just one part of the expression of Edgewater, and it's an expression that flourishes," he said. "We look at it as not 35 different Little Free Libraries, but one idea about literacy in Edgewater that sprouted up in 35 different places."

In the library's absence, Karen Dreyfuss, assistant to 48th Ward Ald. Harry Osterman and education liaison, said she and other neighborhood leaders and volunteers formed "Edgewater Reads," a group committed to ensuring the community's passion for books remained strong.

They parked a school bus full of books in the parking lot of the Broadway Armory and let people take, leave and borrow at will. Book discussion groups and literacy programming were formed.

Then in 2013, a woman from the Chicago Friends School on Thorndale Avenue suggested the idea of Little Free Libraries as another temporary solution for access to books.

The new library was completed in June of that year, but in September Welch, whose mother had been a public library worker, had put up the first of what would become more than three dozen free mini-libraries.

The concept caught on like wildfire.

Neighborhood groups came together to hold "build days" where interested residents could construct their own book repositories. Local 3-D printer shop Edgewater Workbench started laser cutting "Edgewater Reads" into beautiful wooden plaques adorned on the side or top of each book stand.

Edgewater Reads regrouped, built a website and started adding other literacy-themed projects to its list like book clubs, pop-up storytelling and more.

There are now 29 mapped locations, with about 10 more currently in the works.

Where 29 of Edgewater's Little Free Libraries lie within the neighborhood, with about 10 more on the way. [Screenshot]

It became clear to not only those involved in the literacy program's planning, but also to the neighborhood, the small libraries were bringing out more in the community than just its love for books.

"I think it also is one of things that people feel like it really is a community thing, it's not just somebody has a free library, which is a nice thing," Welch said. "It's, 'Oh, this is part of the character of Edgewater, this is one of the things that we do, Edgewater reads.'"

Dreyfuss agreed, saying the libraries program has come to be "very defining of who we are as a community."

She'd like to see Free Little Libraries in every neighborhood school, and even spoke of the possibility that vacant storefront space beneath the CTA Berwyn Red Line station could someday become a designated book repository.

Welch said at the Edgewater chamber, businesses will be moving into a new three-tiered membership arrangement — with the middle and top levels automatically qualifying for their very own little library if feasible for the business.

Dreyfuss said the group's plan was to continue to not only build more libraries, but to bring library-owners together so they can form a strong network of their own.

As the initiative has blossomed, Dreyfuss and Welch said it's become increasingly important to build connections between residents and book purveyors.

"I think that Edgewater is unique in the sense that it feels like a small town in a lot of ways, and it's very defining of who we are as a community," Dreyfuss said. "Sort of, sharing ideas, sharing conversations, and sort of using books as this vehicle of doing that."

Eventually, they see themselves reaching out to network with Little Free Libraries in other neighborhoods, too.

And on Dec. 13, anyone is invited to attend a holiday party and book swap at 1619 W. Rosehill Ave. from 4-6 p.m., where refreshments, books and treats will be in abundance. Attendees are asked to bring five books to share.

Though Edgewater's love affair with Little Free Libraries began as a way to cope with the library's absence, Dreyfuss said it's been a serendipitous journey.

"It's been really amazing to watch a small idea that a couple of people were excited about kind of take on a true life of its own and have the community embrace it in the way that again, just defines the community of Edgewater," she said.

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