The “Little Free Library” project—for those unfamiliar—is a volunteer-based initiative wherein little book-housing structures are constructed and (literally) planted into the neighborhood under the premise of “take a book, leave a book.” Modeled after the original Minnesota/Wisconsin strike of little libraries, the Syracuse undertaking, of which I’m a proud part, has the particular goal of addressing the egregious literacy problems in the Near West Side (linked to the severe poverty there no doubt) and highlighting the positive dimensions of a community (reportedly) rife with social problems.
I am so excited about the work we are about to do for more reasons than I should get into in this particular post. That being said, my focus here will be a bit scattered because I wanted to discuss the application of Lankes’ new librarianship in this project. The Syracuse Little Free Library Project is a beautiful consummation of multiple discourses implied and explained in the Atlas—particularly discourses that have struck me as either interesting or troubling.
Continuing my wrestling match with Lankes’ treatment of the role of motivation in new librarianship, I have begun to embrace it (if only to “try it on for size”) and it has informed a lot of my recent attitudes towards this project. In a world where community members favor illicit, ultimately self-destructive activity to reading and learning at worse, or at best are consistently told that their community is inherently decadent, we are giving community members an opportunity to take ownership of a collection of their own books. I can only imagine the sense of genuine interest that can come from that new relationship to reading material. How can we make sure that motivation gets off to a powerful jump start? How do we keep that motivation going? How do we continue to expand the ways and degree to which we motivate the community without being obnoxious, tactless or creepy?
Essentially, we are facilitating a conversation among the community members by providing a “venue” for community members to become conversants. Every book left behind is a message sent; a contribution freighted with meaning and personal valence. It describes the interests that someone has in the community; their hobbies/habits/personalities can all be conveyed in each book left. Every book taken is a message received. A sign of shared interests or interests soon to be shared. An indication that someone cares enough to “listen.” A connection, even if anonymous, made. A decreasing distance between community members.
This decreasing distance between community members can foster a germination of positive energy in the Near Westside, nurture a sense of pride and reduce the more unsavory activities in that area. Together with the many other community based initiatives to “restore” the Near Westside, the Little Free Library Project has the potential to really change things for the better.
The issue that is tough for me to navigate is the implications that are bound up with a university-initiated project to “improve” a community that we have little ties to beyond geography. There’s something vaguely imperialist about the idea—despite all of our collective altruism—that breeds a vivid sense of caution about every move we make in this project. We’ve tried everything from allowing room for as much community participation/input in the planning of the project to prohibiting the prominent use of orange in the design of the structures to abate this sense of
I’m simply concerned about how both the perception and the reality of us, folk with a relative degree of privilege, going into their community to “help them” can breed problems rather than mutual respect. Even if there aren’t any explicit conflicts or resentments, the concept itself may be problematic. I suppose one way to ameliorate my anxiety about this is to inject myself into the community. If the clear separation between “us” and “them” is narrowed, then perhaps this dynamic would be less problematic. Idk. Thoughts?
My expectations for self-development as a competent librarian are pretty steep in this project, but perhaps not unfounded. A practical application of the theories introduced in Dr. Lankes’ book will definitetly give me a more salient understanding of just what the hell he’s talking about. Further, I have an opportunity to make real change for the better.