They may all be part of the same organization, but each Little Free Library in State College has a unique story.
The libraries, which began showing up regularly in State College in the past few years, are birdhouse-like structures that are filled with books and placed around the community, usually in people’s front yards or at local parks.
Even in the dead of winter when the snow is falling, these outside libraries remain open, offering their books to passersby.
Popularized nationwide by the Wisconsin-based Little Free Library organization, the mini-libraries encourage visitors to take books, read them and add a book they’ve enjoyed. People can either start their own libraries with help from the Little Free Library organization or create their own.
The Little Free Library organization was founded in 2009 by Todd Bol, a Hudson, Wisconsin, resident who wanted to honor his mother’s love of reading by creating a small library shaped liked a one-room schoolhouse.
For Penn State physics professor Richard Robinett, the library at Autumnwood Park began with a similar inspiration. Robinett wanted to honor his late mother, a former professor of linguistics, as well as introduce others to books while clearing extras from his house.
“There’s this turnover, people putting history books, mystery books ... kid’s books, cookbooks, and they just come and go,” Robinett said.
Though he’ll add books donated by colleagues, “I haven’t put a new book of mine in for years,” Robinett said.
Dana Stuchul, an assistant professor of education at Penn State, said her barn-shaped library — with two Adirondack chairs for anyone who wants to sit and read — was a way to encourage community connectedness while attracting people to the garden nearby and paying homage to her love of nature.
“I just liked the notion that books circulate, and they’re free: You take a book, you give a book, and it’s just beautiful,” Stuchul said.
By putting in different books, including some about nature, Stuchul hopes that she and her family are “planting seeds of the conversations that we’d like to have with our neighbors and people in our community.”
The best thing, Stuchul said, is when children use the library.
“We make a point to keep children’s books in the little free library. So what’s most enjoyable is when we see children engaging with it, with their parents or babysitters or whatever,” she said.
Adam Faircloth, 28, a graduate assistant studying English at Penn State, said he started his library to provide access to “disability-friendly children’s books.”
Various types of assembly kits or pre-built libraries ranging in price are available for purchase through the online Little Free Library store, but the website also offers building plans.
Stuchul saved money on creating a library after an acquaintance from the Centre County Farmland Trust was willing to build one for her.
While the online models are made with weather-resistant materials, Faircloth was able to fortify his homemade library with a shingled roof. On the Little Free Library website, an instructional blog offers tips on how to re-purpose plastic containers or old refrigerators.
While children’s books and fiction are the most popular offerings, library-keepers said textbooks and cookbooks circulate as well.
The State College Rotary Club has funded eight libraries through a 50-50 “matching grant” from Rotary International, according to Nandu Desai, the State College Rotary Club’s treasurer.
“We just wanted to promote reading,” Desai said. “Literacy is one of the things that Rotary focuses on. We want kids to learn how to read (and) share books”
Creating a library from scratch costs about $200, according to Desai.
Desai said the Rotary Club would like to expand the number of libraries within State College.
For Ruth Mendum, the stump of a tree served as the place to grow her sustainable library. When Mendum moved into her house in State College a few years ago, she noticed a large pine tree was blocking sight of a stop sign.
“I normally plant trees, I don’t take them down. So instead of taking the tree down entirely, we decided to leave the stump and use that as the base of the little free library,” Mendum said.
While Mendum, the associate director for gender initiatives in the Office of International Programs in the Penn State College of Agriculture, said the library sees more activity in the summer, there are still people who use it when winter slows down foot traffic.
There are at least 10 libraries within State College Borough limits, and the libraries generally contain 20 to 40 books of various sizes and types.
Outside of engaging the community, Mendum said the library has introduced her to new authors and provided a visual landmark for guests visiting her home for the first time.
“It’s nice to know we’re all on the same side in terms of wanting to make the community better here,” Mendum said.
Gabrielle Barone is a Penn State journalism student.