My Free Little Library in Ottawa

photo of Brian Smith at the Hans on the bike little library
Brian Smith at the opening of my free little library. Brian maintains a website with most of the little libraries and bike tours to visit them
Reading Time: 6 minutes

I love the artistic expressions in the little libraries. Some people build a model of their own house, or use a simple box, or convert a kitchen cupboard and paint them Bright Pink or Sky Blue ot Ottawa Beige. Everything goes really. I have seen Gothic ones, cedar shingled ones, outsized cartoonish ones, Victorian home ones, a Dutch traditional house one. Creativity has no limits.

A little library in your front yard turns out be a great conversation starter. But what I really like is the somewhat anarchistic nature of it. People place them in their frontyard and everyone has access to it. Unless some rare grumpy neighbour complains because it’s on city property. The neighbour with no weeds in the front yard. The neighbour who washes his Honda CRV every Saturday morning. The neighbour with the loud leaf blower.

A little library modelled after the local architecture in Zaandam, Netherlands. The signs reads in dialect: “Little book readers house” (photo: Hans on the Bike – 2016)

Spotting a little library

If you bike around in Ottawa, you have likely seen them. And if you have no idea what I am talking about, you should check out Brian Smith’s website where he has several bike routes that pass dozens and dozens of little libraries. Brian updates his website regularly, partly because I keep finding new ones on my own travels by bike through Ottawa. I take a picture and then share it with Brian.

Community Centre

Initially I thought I should build a free little library for our community centre, but one of the city’s requirements was that it has to have French content. But what if people are not bringing French books? I was not planning to monitor that. So I let that idea go quickly. I have seen a community centre with a little library and it had zero French books though.

Building my own little library

Then I decide to build one for our own front yard. One of the great unwritten rules of the little libraries is that you build it out of scrap materials if you can. I searched through my wood leftovers and I found a leftover of our shed’s floor board. We had several cans of paint leftovers (who doesn’t), used for our Adirondeck chairs and that came in handy for the library too.

It started with part of a floor board
Beaufort assisting with the construction

Scrap materials

Then I spent an afternoon sawing and drilling and painting. Luck had it that I found three 4 x 4’s at the curb a street over, so I had my post to mount my library on too. A few years before, I found a few roof shingles at someone’s curb and I thought that could come in handy too “If I was ever going to build a little library”. The only things I bought were two hinges. I did have two, 1970’s French kitchen cupboard style, but they were so not matching the library that I decide not to use them.

Beaufort mistakenly assumed it was his new place

Once it was finished I planted it in my front yard. I had no idea how it was going to work out.

I purposely chose for a somewhat haphazard script. The handle was a discarded but rescued spoon from our kitchen

The first day of my little library

The first days many people stopped to check out the new library. I was surprised and feeling somewhat proud too. I don’t think everyone knew the concept of a little library judging by the expressions of surprise and happiness. To be sure that people understood the concept, I had added a note to the door: “take a book, leave a book”. People crossed the street to check it out, kids begged their parents to stop and see what that colourful little house was about, two sisters stopped by, little kids on bikes had to check it out. A nun on a bicycle took a peek in the library too. Early morning dog walkers stopped regularly to check out the content.

Councillor Egli dropped off a Bill Bryson book

Billy Graham arrives

One person started to leave Billy Graham materials. I let it happen for a while and would remove the flyers a few days later. I was sure the culprit was going to get the message. But my assumption was wrong. They saw the disappearing flyers as proof that people wanted them, so new Billy Graham flyers kept appearing. In the end I decided to put another note on: “No religious materials“. I think it is working.

Shakespeare and Louise Penny

I am noticing that people take more books than that they bring back. I had heard that from others too that you have to have a bit of a back up and I am now adding books myself once in a while. Some people though bring really interesting material and I have been reading several books from the library myself. Recently, I found the complete works of Shakespeare in a bound copy. It was gone in a few days.

People leave books from Louise Penny. There were some post WW2 German books in there (didn’t move unfortunately), some French children’s books, there are thrillers and love stories. There was a book about Haiti’s carnaval, and Karen is currently reading “The sweetness of Water” by Nathan Harris…which she found in the little library and suggested for her book club.

How about our 16 months of winter?

Whatever you suggest in Ottawa, the nay sayers always bring up the 16 months of winter. Wouldn’t you know, people read in winter too. I set back the library about 6 feet so that there is enough space to store snow if the snow plow comes by. Then I dig a short trench from our driveway to the library and everyone is happy.

So how is it going with my little library?

It is working like a charm. I had fears of vandalism and By-law officers, but so far, fingers crossed, so good. Recently, we came back from a trip to Europe and someone had added a whole row of new books and had pushed the existing layer to the back. So cool. Already an entire row of books is gone again.

I really think that the city should embrace these small citizens initiatives formally but with as few rules as possible. I am going to thank Councillors Glen Gower and Keith Egli here for pushing this file: it is harmless, educational and helps establish and maintain the social fabric of a community: I talk to people I have never seen before.

I just hope the city doesn’t go overboard with regulation which is currently being discussed. That would be the death knell of this wonderful, creative initiative. Little library owners are thoughtful and passionate about their libraries and I have seen very few, if any, that are neglected. I have one nagging concern though: my library might be 4 cm too high! But I don’t fully understand the proposed rule of “minimum 90 cm and maximum 110 cm” yet. Is that the shelf? The tip of the library? That is a tight margin and it will not allow for much creativity anymore.

Read my story about the book that expired and the librarian who helped find another copy.

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