In the first cold, dark months of this year, Jennifer Armstrong peered from behind the curtain of her second-floor window like a kid watching a fishing line for nibbles.
A few days before, she set up a dollhouse-looking box on a garden table at the edge of her Saratoga Springs front yard. She stocked it with children’s books from her personal collection, hung a small sign reading “Little Free Library,” posted a note instructing kids to take a book or leave a book, and took her post at the window.
Finally a kid on his way home from school slowed, edged around the little library. He opened it and took a book.
“The first time a kid actually stopped and took one,” Armstrong said, “I was so thrilled.”
In the months since, scores of passing kids have helped themselves to a book or two. Many even brought back some of their own past reads.
“I come out here every few days,” she said, “just to straighten things up. It gets pretty messy. Books are gone or there are new books jammed in. It’s used.”
Armstrong’s little free library isn’t a unique creation. It’s one of thousands set up in neighborhoods all over the world. In the past three years Little Free Library, an organization started in a Wisconsin front yard, has spread all over the world.
There are clusters in England, France, even one in Israel’s West Bank, but most are scattered across the United States. The organization’s mission is simply to get books into the hands of people who might not have literature around the house, or don’t feel at ease in the hush of traditional libraries.
It’s an anonymous and endlessly flexible system. A pedestrian could pick up an Ernest Hemingway collection from a tiny replica English phone booth on a street in Minneapolis, an installment of the Harry Potter saga from a miniature Amish shed in Chicago, or a copy of “Little House on the Prairie” from Armstrong’s library.
It’s all free and conducted on the honor system.
That flexibility turned one guy’s whim into a movement in just a few years, and Armstrong’s own box into a sort of community center in just a few months. Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisc., started the neighborhood bookshare in honor of his mother, a teacher and reader, according to Little Free Library’s website. Bol’s front-yard mini-library is built to look like a one-room schoolhouse.
Armstrong, an author of books for children and young adults, heard about Little Free Library from a friend living in California.
“Once I heard about it I couldn’t help myself,” she said. “Why wouldn’t I want to have a little library of my own?”
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, between May showers, she stood by her library, highlighting some of her favorite structural features. She painted it to match the green board-and-batten walls and red tin roof of her own home.
Many of the titles were also picked out to match her literary taste. As Armstrong discussed the merits of a hardcover edition of “Little Lost Bat,” a nervous 5-year-old approached from the sidewalk.
The girl’s name was Lira, and she held a small paperback to her chest like she was hugging a close friend.
“We’ve been here 10 times,” said Jessie Riley, the girl’s aunt. “Every time my nieces and nephews come over, I bring them here to pick out a book. It’s probably my favorite thing about this neighborhood.”
Lira exchanged her paperback, a picture-book about puppies, for “Little Lost Bat,” which Armstrong said was perfect for all kindergartners.
“That wasn’t even set up,” she said as Lira retreated down the sidewalk. “It really does get used.”
Books come and go with the tide of kids walking from home to Lake Avenue Elementary, just a block from Armstrong’s house. Most little libraries, though, aren’t geared specifically toward children, and the network is still rapidly growing.
“Sometimes I’ll look out my window and a whole family is out there reading my books,” said Cathy Grossman, who runs a little free library at her home in Niskayuna.
Last spring her husband bought her a tiny Amish shed that they stocked with books and set up in the front yard.
“At first I had to buy books to replenish it,” she said, about people taking more books than they returned. “Now it’s pretty much self-stocking.”
She couldn’t explain why her little library is so popular with the neighbors, but Mohawk Valley Library System Executive Director Eric Trahan posited a theory.
“There are people who feel comfortable in a traditional library and people who don’t,” he said.
With little free libraries, there are no noise limits, no due dates and no library cards. Wednesday afternoon, there were birds chirping and an orange cat named Pumpkin coiling around Armstrong’s ankles as she talked books.
It was a low-stress reading environment, which could explain why she has such a fast turnover.
Armstrong was quick to point out her little setup isn’t meant to compete with traditional libraries. It’s meant to get kids acclimated to books.
“Reading books is a prerequisite for having a civil society,” she said.
Her intention is simply to get all the neighborhood kids to notice literature. If they see books as an option, she said they’ll inevitably pick one up at some point.
As an author, Armstrong has kept an eye on the industry for more than two decades. Since she started writing 25 years and 100 published books ago, childhood has changed.
“Kids are pulled in more directions than ever these days,” she said. “The amount of money spent on video games dwarfs what’s spent on books.”
She hopes to stall the advance of youth distraction. So far, if the number of kids she’s seen run off with books is any indication, things look promising.
“Every generation someone says the book is dead,” she said. “It hasn’t happened yet. Here’s proof.”
Armstrong’s library is along East Harrison Street in Saratoga Springs. Grossman’s library is on Pheasant Ridge in Niskayuna.
For more information or to get a little free library, visit www.littlefreelibrary.org.