Nobody warned me about the dangers of taking an early morning walk through a peaceful Viennese neighborhood. The fresh air, empty streets, lack of cars, and no people on the sidewalks made for a beautiful May promenade, accompanied by the sound of birds chirping. Suddenly, my leisurely stroll came to a halt. In front of me stood a dangerously huge, solidly built, belief-threatening, mind-boggling large Free Street Library!

Vienna, 22nd district

There was no way to avoid it. I couldn’t just simply pass by, pretending I did not see it. My curiosity was too strong to pretend to be indifferent or disinterested. Slowly, I turned around, just to make sure no one was watching me, and cautiously, like a thief, I took a few steps towards that intriguing and, in my mind, long-extinct beast. Such a big “street library,” as it is known in Australia, or a “little free library,” as it is known in the US and Canada, was the size of a small Russian dacha. Together with its glass bookshelves, wooden table and bench, surrounded by green grass, and a collection of interesting book titles, the place looked attractive and inviting.

I remembered walking through the streets of Toronto, Canada, and coming across many little free libraries, some of them nice and artsy, while some of them almost dilapidated, but still practical for sharing books. All of them I encountered there were small and, as the name suggests, little libraries, but this one was comparatively speaking, giant, very well maintained, and stocked with many books.

Impressed by the sight, some confronting thoughts were going through my mind. Just the night before, I had read “The Book is Dead: Long Live the Book” by Sherman Young. So, if the book, and I mean the printed book, is really dead, am I maybe at a cemetery and is this some kind of book tomb? If it is not a book cemetery, then who is visiting this place, who is reading these books, who is maintaining it, who operates it, how does all this work, and is it really sustainable for more than a week or two?

The concept behind the Free Street Library is simple: take a book, leave a book. Anyone can take a book from the library, and anyone can leave a book in the library. The idea is to encourage people to share books and promote reading within their community. Free Street Libraries are often stocked with a variety of books, including fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, and even magazines. Some libraries are themed, such as those that specialize in cookbooks or travel books. The books in the Free Street Libraries are typically donated by individuals or organizations, and many people regularly restock their libraries with new books.

Book sharing among friends, colleagues, neighbors, book clubs, or communities of interest is not a new phenomenon. It dates back to the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed in Mainz in 1455 by Johann Gutenberg. However, a new term for this activity, “BookCrossing,” was coined fairly recently, in 2001, by Ron Hornbaker. BookCrossing is defined as “the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise.” The Little Free Library, founded in 2009 as a US-based nonprofit organization, promotes neighborhood book exchanges, usually in the form of a public bookcase. More than 150,000 public book exchanges are registered with the organization and branded as Little Free Libraries. The Little Free Libraries are present in 120 countries, have shared over 300 million books, and their main aim is to increase access to books for readers of all ages and backgrounds. Their motto is: “Take a Book. Share a Book.”

In an age where screens and virtual technology reign supreme, some communities are trying to revive a love of books among children. Nic Lowe started “Street Library Australia” after seeing a similar project during a trip to the United States about 10 years ago. Street Libraries are weatherproof boxes set up outside a house or in a public space, filled with books that community members can take from or donate to. After an initial workshop building 30 libraries in 2015, there are now about 4,500 registered Street Libraries in Australia. Street Libraries became popular during COVID-19, as communities looked for ways to remain connected during lockdowns.

Street Libraries are a window into the mind of a community. Books come and go. No one needs to check them in or out. People can simply reach in and take what interests them. When they are done, they can return them to the Street Library network or pass them on to friends. If anyone has a book or two that they think others would enjoy, they can just pop it into any Street Library they happen to be walking past. Street Libraries are a symbol of trust and hope – a tiny vestibule of literary happiness. They bring joy and excitement and encourage kids to read. They bring the community together.

There are other names for the same type of library around the world. Here are a few examples:

  • Bookcrossing Zones: Bookcrossing is a global book-sharing movement where people leave books in public places for others to find and read. Bookcrossing zones are specific locations designated for book exchanges, and they can be found in various countries around the world.
  • Book Swaps: A book swap is a community-based book exchange where people bring their unwanted books and trade them for other books. Book swaps can be found in different forms, including physical events, online platforms, and community bookshelves.
  • Book Boxes: Book boxes are small, free-standing boxes that contain books for the public to take and read. They are similar to little free libraries and street libraries and can be found in various public places, such as parks, train stations, and street corners.
  • Community Libraries: Community libraries are small-scale libraries that are run by and for the local community. They can be found in different forms, such as in public spaces, community centers, or people’s homes, and they offer a range of books and other resources.
  • Reading Rooms: Reading rooms are public spaces where people can go to read and access books, newspapers, and other reading materials. They can be found in different settings, such as libraries, schools, and community centers, and they offer a quiet and peaceful environment for reading and learning.

Overall, the concept of sharing books and promoting reading in public spaces has been embraced by various communities around the world, and the names for these libraries may differ, but the purpose remains the same – to make books more accessible and to promote a love of reading among people.

Free Street Libraries provide several benefits to the community. First and foremost, they promote literacy and access to books. For people who may not have access to a traditional library, Free Street Libraries provide a way to obtain books for free. Additionally, they can be a great way to build community. By providing a place for people to exchange books and connect with one another, Free Street Libraries can foster a sense of community and belonging. Just like regular libraries, Free Street Libraries can also be used to promote reading and learning among children. By placing them in public spaces, children are more likely to come across them and be exposed to new books and reading material.

Dobrica Savić