HUDSON, Wis. — It started as a simple tribute to his mother, a teacher and bibliophile. Todd Bol put up a miniature version of a one-room schoolhouse on a post outside his home in this western Wisconsin city, filled it with books and invited his neighbors to borrow them.
They loved it, and began dropping by so often that his lawn became a gathering spot. Then a friend in Madison put out some similar boxes and got the same reaction. More home-crafted libraries began popping up around Wisconsin's capital.
Three years later, the whimsical boxes are a global sensation. They number in the thousands and have spread to at least 36 countries, in a testimonial to the power of a good idea, the simple allure of a book and the wildfire of the Internet.
It's weird to be an international phenomenon, said Bol, a former international business consultant who finds himself at the head of what has become the Little Free Libraries organization. The book-sharing boxes are being adopted by a growing number of groups as a way of promoting literacy in inner cities and underdeveloped countries.
Bol, his Madison friend Rick Brooks, and helpers run the project from a funky workshop with a weathered wood facade in an otherwise nondescript concrete industrial building outside Hudson, a riverside community of 12,000 about 20 miles east of downtown St. Paul, Minn. They build wooden book boxes in a variety of styles, ranging from basic to a miniature British-style phone booth, and offer them for sale on the group's website, which also offers plans for building your own. Sizes vary. The essential traits are that they are eye-catching and protect the books from the weather.
Each little library invites passersby to take a book, return a book.
Educators in particular have seized on the potential of something so simple and self-sustaining.
In Minneapolis, school officials are aiming to put up about 100 in neighborhoods where many kids don't have books at home. A box at district headquarters goes through 40 books a day, serving children whose parents come to register them and adults who come to prepare for high school equivalency tests.