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Detroit Little Libraries brings the magic of books to the city’s neighborhoods and helps kids learn to read

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There is something magical about books.

When most of us grew up libraries were places we could go, take out book and lose ourselves in imagery worlds, listen to story time, learn about any topic we wanted and, yes, do homework.

Today that’s not the case for many in Detroit. The libraries in many neighborhoods are closed or have reduced hours and oftentimes transportation to get to other libraries is hard to come by. That means not only is the magic we experienced gone, it makes it harder for kids to learn to read. Without books parents don’t read and therefore kids don’t read. 

Children need books right along with food and health care.

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The need is great: There is only one book for every 37 preschool children in Hamtramck, and one for every five children in Detroit’s University District neighborhood, according to a recent study.

“Books matter,” says Detroit Little Libraries, a grassroots campaign promoting reading and a sense of community in Detroit. “They are the single best indicator of how well a child will do in school. They foster neighborhood cohesion and a more empathetic, volunteer oriented people.”

So just what is a Detroit Little Library?

It’s a doll house-size box placed near a home, small business or community garden that is filled with books anyone can take or leave. Detroit Little Libraries planted the first Little Free Library in the city less than 18 months ago, and numerous partners and generous donors have helped provide thousands of books in 150 in locations throughout the city.

It all started a couple of years ago when Detroit News reporter Kim Kozlowski noticed people in her Ferndale neighborhood put up little houses in front of their homes that were really little libraries. They were filled with books people could take, read and return or add others to the collection. She added a little library made of reclaimed wood from a house built in 1915 in Hamtramck to the front of her house.

“I met so many people I hadn’t met before,” she says. “It was exciting and created a real sense of community.”

Then one day she and her husband were biking on the RiverWalk and found a little free library with no books. Right then and there she decided to do something. She launched a crowdfunding campaign and raised $4,220 on Indiegogo and also got a $1,000 donation from a woman living in Alaska who was originally from Detroit. That $5,220 helped her found Detroit Little Libraries.

“People got very excited about it,” Kozlowski says. “It added to a sense of hope in the city.”

Kim Kozlowski

Kim Kozlowski with a little library

Since she started the program more and more people and organizations have jumped on the bandwagon. Some Boy Scouts have created little libraries as their Eagle Scout project and a family in Ann Arbor made it the service project for their son’s and daughter’s bar and bat mitzvah. There have also been donations from Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs and others.

The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press donated retired newspaper boxes that have been creatively turned into little libraries.

The City of Detroit has plans to work the little libraries into 40 parks slated for renovation over the next 18 months. Meanwhile, communities such as Romeo, Rochester Hills, Grosse Pointe and Pleasant Ridge are installing little free libraries in neighborhoods.

In addition, the First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham is planning to do a similar project in Pontiac, Kozlowski says.

The door is wide open for others to join. Kozlowski will soon be speaking to a group of auto suppliers pulled together by the PR firm AutoCom and hopes to gain more support there.

Kozlowski has big plans for the Detroit Little Libraries. “Detroit is on a comeback. Let’s make Detroit the little free library capital of the nation,” she says. The group is half way to it goal of putting 313 little libraries in the city.

“We think the planting of 150 little libraries in Detroit with our partners has helped renew and encourage interest in reading, and helped build community spirit,” Kozlowski says.

To mark the occasion and continue the momentum, Detroit Little Libraries held a fundraiser, Viva Libris! A Night for Detroit Little Libraries, on Thursday, June 9.

Those attending had the opportunity to sponsor a Little Free Library – including one of the 13 very special libraries transformed by local artists and recently displayed at the Mobile Homestead at the Museum of Contemporary Art. These libraries will soon be planted in the community. Most of them found sponsors at the fundraiser.

A Detroit Little Libraries supporter leans on the library with the art work by Palmer Woods resident Barbara Barefield

A Detroit Little Libraries supporter leans on the library with the art work by Palmer Woods resident Barbara Barefield

Posing for a photo at Viva Libris! An Evening for Detroit Little Libraries: Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Bennett, Detroit News reporters Christine Ferretti and Maureen Feighan, Musician Spencer Barefield and Detroit Little Libraries founder Kim Kozlowski

Posing for a photo at Viva Libris! An Evening for Detroit Little Libraries: Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Bennett, Detroit News reporters Christine Ferretti and Maureen Feighan, Musician Spencer Barefield and Detroit Little Libraries founder Kim Kozlowski

While these special little libraries were a little pricey, there is another alternative. Kozlowski recently found a retired engineer from Ford, who also happens to be a woodworker, to make other little libraries.

“By the time we pay him for the wood, buy a sign to register it and stain the library, the cost is $250 to sponsor,” she says. “Included in that price is a plaque on the libraries, if people want to sponsor them in their name, or in memory of someone.”

Detroit Little Libraries is an all-volunteer organization and all donations go directly to build and inspire new little libraries in the city.

There are ways you can get involved and help Detroit Little Libraries pay it forward. You can build your own little library. Click here to find out how. You can also volunteer to help keep a current library stocked, find out who’s using it and do any necessary repairs. If you have some extra time … a couple of hours a week … the group needs people to do research, writing and database entry. If that’s of interest, click here to find out more.

Kozlowski also would like to find someone to create, preferably donate, an app that will show the locations of little libraries in the city so people can easily find them. Right now the website has map that shows those locations. 

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If you would like to donate books just go to one or more of the little library sites and put your books you books in the box. Here is a link to a map with all the sites.

Detroit Little Libraries works in in partnership with Wisconsin-based Little Free Library. The original project was created by a gentleman named Todd Bol, who built a model of a one-room school house full of books in 2009 as a memorial to his mother, who was a school teacher and loved to read. Today there are nearly 40,000 Little Free Library book exchanges around the world, bringing curbside literacy home and sharing millions of books annually.

These little libraries bring magic, adventure and knowledge into the lives of children, and adults.

As Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, storyteller Bill Harley says, “Every child needs a safe place to fall – a place where he or she can explore things without worrying about failure and judgment. A library is one of those places. In a library you can learn by following your own nose, which is very different from someone telling you what you should learn. Once a kid learns a library is hers, to use as she wants, the world opens up.”

It’s true for grown-ups, too.

Detroit Little Libraries partners include Rx for Reading Detroit, Detroit Rotary, Detroit Kiwanis, Detroit SOUP, Detroit Bikes, Detroit Parks, Detroit Public Library, The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, General Motors, FCA, The Mobile Homestead at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Grand River Creative Corridor, The Tangent Gallery, First United Methodist Church of Birmingham, Community United for Progress, Barefield DesignWorks, Novi teachers and several individuals, including many Eagle Scouts and B’Nei Mitzvah children.

– Photos from the Viva Libris! A Night for Detroit Little Libraries event courtesy of former Detroit News photographer Ed Ballots

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One comment on “Detroit Little Libraries brings the magic of books to the city’s neighborhoods and helps kids learn to read

  1. Great story! One of the best pieces on Detroit Little Libraries and the super job Detroit News reporter Kim Kozlowski and her team have done to turn a dream into reality on the streets throughout the metro area.

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