If you look around town, you may notice some little boxes of books. They’re Little Free Libraries — small community libraries where you can take books and leave books. But these libraries have become so much more, especially during the pandemic.
The Little Free Library is a global book exchange dedicated to fostering reading in children and communities. The organization has more than 100,000 free libraries in all 50 states and 108 countries.
Around 2016, the idea spread into the Green Valley area, when Mary Lou James decided to build one after seeing them while visiting Seattle.
“Every few blocks, I saw these little boxes,” James said. “People had been so creative with decorating them and using trees to put them in, and I wanted to bring that idea home to Green Valley.”
Friends offered to build and decorate a book box for James when she presented the idea and the first Little Free Library in Amado was established.
“We said, ‘food for the body; food for the mind,’ so it’s right outside the food bank,” James said.
Shortly after establishing the Amado free library, the Community Food Bank in Green Valley asked James if they could sponsor one in Green Valley.
The library was built and four volunteers came forth as stewards, responsible for restocking the libraries and making sure they have books available for everyone. Each steward was given one week a month to monitor the library.
One steward at the Green Valley library is Pam Duchaine, a Sahuarita resident with a love for reading.
“I love reading and I like to do everything I can to foster reading, especially in kids,” she said.
Santa Cruz Valley United Methodist Church in Sahuarita also sponsors a Little Free Library in its parking lot.
The church library was established about six years ago by member Vern Butler and his friend Chuck Beaujon. After reading articles about the organization, they decided they wanted to provide the service to the community.
“On most days, we have a food truck using the parking lot,” Butler said. “People will come for food and drinks and let their children exchange books. Even a number of adults use the free service.”
There are about nine Little Free Libraries registered in the Green Valley and Sahuarita area, and numerous unregistered.
Linda Laird is the coordinator of one such library in her neighborhood.
After working as a steward for the Green Valley Little Free Library, Laird decided she wanted to establish her own community library.
“So, I went to my neighborhood association and asked what they thought about putting one in,” she said.
These libraries were all established prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, so it’s no surprise that the libraries saw a change of pace in readers when the pandemic hit.
After COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the Little Free Libraries saw a drop in visitors. As the number of cases decline, visitor numbers are slowly climbing.
“In talking to the stewards, they noticed there were fewer people during the pandemic,” James said. “It has come back a bit, but it’s not quite back to normal.”
As a steward at one of the libraries, Duchaine saw a similar change in numbers.
“Certainly, the takeaway from the library has not been as brisk as it was pre-COVID when we first started it,” she said. “Books just flew out of there, and then it reached kind of an equilibrium.”
On the other hand, Butler thinks there may have been more visitors during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic.
“Although we don’t keep track of the number of people that use the Little Free Library, I did notice more cars stopped at the library during the pandemic than before,” he said. “I believe this increased use has carried over to the present.”
However, some library coordinators, like Laird, saw no change in the regular number of visitors, aside from those who visit from out-of-state.
“There’s more now, when snowbirds are here, but there are people that use it year-round in the neighborhood,” she said.
Despite this change in numbers, some of those involved with the libraries think they may have been a big help to the community during the pandemic.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted community access to public libraries, Green Valley has pioneered yet again.
On her assigned week, Duchaine goes to the library to restock the book supply, but lately she’s had to remove books, instead.
“One time, about three or four months ago, I got there and someone had just stuffed it with books,” she said. “I could hardly move them. They also left a big bag beside it.”
Duchaine is not the only one who has seen a jump in the number of donations.
“We noticed one thing: that people have been contributing more books,” James said. “I talked to one volunteer who said that sometimes the boxes were so stuffed lately that they actually had to remove some books.”
Butler also said that donations have increased during COVID-19.
“The donations have dropped off a little since, but we are getting more books than our little ‘house’ can hold, which is a good thing,” he said.
Other locations also receive donations from visitors and residents.
Diane Farone, a steward at the free library in Amado, said that because the library’s location, between the food bank and the United Community Health Care Clinic, some employees donate children’s books and magazines.
With book donations increasing, some stewards and coordinators believe this is a sign that the libraries are an outreach for the community.
“For people who may not be Green Valley or Sahuarita library patrons, I think the free library probably has been kind of a lifeline,” Duchaine said.
Others don’t quite see the Little Free Libraries as a lifeline, but more of public access to books.
“I’m not sure the word ‘lifeline’ is correct, but the free library did provide a place to get books when schools closed, county libraries closed, and the White Elephant was shut down,” Butler said. “Our small library provided a place to pick up a book or books for both adults and children.”
Laird also has a similar point of view.
“People have told me that they enjoyed having it during the pandemic,” Laird said. “I wouldn’t call it a lifeline, but it’s a book-line.”
Whether the libraries are lifelines or something much simpler, they all have the same goal: to sponsor reading in the community and children.
The Little Free Library organization looks to inspire children to read and to expand book access to children, and the library coordinators in Green Valley have not lost sight of the goal.
“I want to get books in the home of everyone, but mainly children who learn to enjoy reading, even before they go to school,” James said. “Children who enjoy books anyway and see books in the home, and realize that reading is pleasurable and fun.”
The hope to help children learn to read and enjoy reading is not lost on Duchaine.
“To me, the childrens books are the most valuable and interesting, because we so want to encourage reading among kids,” she said.
Laird has a different goal in mind, which is to simply be a good neighbor.
“I just think it’s a nice neighborly thing to do, provide books,” she said.
At the SCVUMC library, Butler said that their main goal is to provide books to those who can’t afford them.
“If we can help one child or adult increase their reading skills, we have made a difference.”