You may have never heard of Ursula Oaks, but she’s a pioneer. She and her family are one of only a handful of East-Coast bibliophiles who have become stewards of a Little Free Library.

What’s a Little Free Library? Just as it sounds, it’s a small structure—a little bigger than a breadbox—that houses books which are free to borrow. Take a book, return a book, leave a book. Visit as often as you wish. And there’s never an overdue fine!

The brainchild of Todd Bol and Rick Brooks, the Little Free Library enterprise began in 2009 and flourished in the Wisconsin and Minnesota region. Intended to support literacy, social empowerment, youth and community development, the libraries sit on front lawns and places of business, encouraging neighbors and patrons to read…and share great literature.

A map on the LittleFreeLibrary.org website displays registered LFLs around the country. I was hoping to find one in New Jersey, but alas, none exist. (Don’t worry, my neighbor and I plan to change that soon.)

But I did find Ursula Oaks in Silver Spring, MD, living just three miles from my brother’s home. Originally I planned to visit her and the little library-on-stilts in her side yard, but since that didn’t work out, we chatted via email about her experience with being a Little Free Library “home librarian”.

TL: When and why did you decide to open a Little Free Library?

UO: I first heard about the LFL movement on an NPR program out of Wisconsin Public Radio called “Here On Earth: Radio Without Borders”, which is hosted by the amazing journalist Jean Feraca. She interviewed the founders, and the whole thing sounded so fun and meaningful that I went home that night and told my husband and son about it. They were both interested, too, so we started making plans. We thought the idea was a perfect melding of our shared love for building things, for libraries, and for books. Our son Liam loved the idea that we could select books from our own collection to share, and that we could host something in our yard that the whole community could take part in. My husband Craig was excited to have a new building project. And we all loved the creative aspect of designing and painting something totally unique. That was September of last year. It took us five months to actually get it completely finished, due to schedules, weather, travel, etc. The finished library finally went up in the yard on January 25 of this year.

TL: How did it get built and why did you choose the Madeline theme?

Craig is great with woodworking, so he built the structure, complete with copper run-off pipes, tin roof, and clear plexiglass front door. I sketched out the design based on the original Bemelmans drawings in one of our Madeline books, and everyone pitched in to paint, including 7-year-old Liam. Frankly we were surprised at how well it turned out, because none of us is particularly gifted with a paintbrush.

The story of how we ended up with the Madeline theme is a bit convoluted. We knew we wanted to do some kind of stylized approach to the house, so we thought about a barn or a farm house or bird house, and then at some point I suggested we try to come up with an idea that had some connection with a book we love—something that people would recognize and understand. Liam has always loved the Madeline stories, and we had recently returned from a visit to Paris for Thanksgiving, so the idea came to us pretty quickly once we went down that path, especially because while we were in Paris we passed an enormous house that looked incredibly similar to the Madeline house.

We decided to let Liam have free rein with the back of the house, but he needed help because he insisted on including an Eiffel Tower. He did the trees and the bird and the flag on the top of the tower.

TL: How does the Little Free Library work? Can people take any book they want? Do they have to return them? Can anyone add to the collection?

UO: The motto of the LFL movement is “take a book, leave a book”, but there’s no check-out/check-in system, and anyone is welcome to take a book. It’s been amazing to see how well this works, totally organically. Some people take and leave books, some just take, some just leave. I put a small notebook and pen inside inviting comments, and we have had many, all of them very positive. Many of them mention what a nice addition it is to the community, and many comment on the attractiveness of the structure itself. It seems to invite people to stop and linger. All of the books we originally stocked it with have been taken, replaced by an equal number of books from many other people.

TL: Can you share some of the comments you’ve received?

UO: “This is beautiful and a treasure! Can we donate books to the cause?”
“We love it! My daughter has exchanged books three times already! Thank you!”
“Add a toilet.” (from a child)
“Gorgeous! Where did you get the cabinet?”
“We love your library!”
“Such a nice little library! It makes us happy just seeing it!”
“Amazing. Makes the world a better place.”
“I love this library.”
“So fun to trade books.”
“What a very sweet and thoughtful addition to our neighborhood. I will have to leave you a treat in return for your great idea.”
“The idea is so amazing. I want to make one when I grow up!!!”
“Thank you so much. We love the house, especially the rain gutters.”

TL: Have any of your neighbors expressed interest in starting their own Little Free Library?

UO: Yes, one person expressed interest. I think people have discovered ours after reading the recent USA Today article about how others have gone about establishing theirs.

TL: What has been the best part of owning a Little Free Library?

UO: The best part of it is seeing it every day and feeling like it is adding a bit of community-building and joy to our neighborhood.

I am always amazed at how it continues to enrich our lives. Let me share with you an interesting anecdote. Craig was getting ready to go to work and walked out to find an enormous FedEx truck in the street. He figured someone had ordered some furniture or something, but then he saw the FedEx guy looking at our Little Free Library. He said “hi” to him and the guy said he had seen a story about LFL on TV and had looked on the web site to see where there might be one in his area (he lives in northern Maryland). He realized there is only one in the state (ours) and said he finally had a chance to come down and check it out!  I just thought that was pretty sweet.

Thank you, Ursula and the Oaks Family! I wish you many happy years of home librarianship! Who knows…maybe the FedEx guy will deliver an endless supply of books!

So blog readers, how about you? Are you eager to set up your own Little Free Library? Let us know in the comments. And visit LittleFreeLibrary.org to get started!