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Little Free Libraries have big impact on neighborhoods

During COVID when most libraries are still closed other than curbside pickup, families are making use of the Free Little Library network in neighborhoods, including Willmar. A Kandiyohi County 4-H club has taken on the job of being stewards to seven of the book-sharing boxes.

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The Gilles family unloads books from their car to replenish one of the Little Free Libraries Friday morning located near Bill Taunton Stadium along 15th Avenue Southwest in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — It’s a hot, steamy Friday morning and four members of the Gilles family have their car loaded up with donated books to begin their weekly trek to replenish and refurbish the Little Free Library near the Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar.

Then they go to six more of the libraries that are spread around neighborhood parks in town.

It takes the family, who are members of the St. John’s Roadrunners 4-H Club, nearly two hours to complete the route each week.

“This is an ongoing project for our 4-H club and we enjoy being able to reach out and reach all ages in the community,” said Megan Gilles, who along with her husband, Doug, and daughters, Arianna, 10, and Zoe, 7, have taken on the responsibility of being the key stewards of seven libraries to make it easy for people to have access to books.

“This is a great neighborhood activity that all can enjoy and share what they have and take what they need,” said Megan Gilles. “It’s take a book, leave a book and enjoy the books.”

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The COVID-19 quarantine has resulted in an increase in activity at the Little Free Library locations in Willmar.

“We have just enjoyed being able to get books to people in the community, especially in the time of coronavirus and the lock-down and quarantine period when our public library was closed, our school libraries were closed,” she said. “This was a great way to get books to people in our community.”

With donations from local businesses, non-profit organizations and private individuals the 4-H club built and installed two brand new Little Free Libraries in 2019 and rebuilt and reinstalled two others that had been built in the past by others but had fallen into disrepair. Doug Gilles made repairs to two more existing libraries that had been damaged by weather or vandalism.

During “non-snowy” months the family checks on all seven libraries once a week and brings new books to put on the shelves.

“We make sure all the books are organized,” said Gilles. Kids’ books are at the bottom and adult books are at the top.

“We make sure the books are in good condition" and “everything is looking good and there’s been no vandalism to the library since the last time that we visited,” she said.

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Donations of books and money typically keep the libraries well-stocked. The Gilles family collected and stored 10 “overflowing” boxes of books over the winter that have already been placed inside the seven Little Free Libraries on their list.

Sometimes the book-sharing boxes are empty when the “leave a book” part of the equation is missed.

“When you give – you give – and you don’t expect a return,” said Gilles. “This is our gift to the community.”

With their 10 boxes of books already used up, Gilles put out a plea for more books recently on the “It Takes a Village” Facebook page that was started during the COVID quarantine to help people in the Willmar area find resources.

The idea of building small, free-standing “libraries” stocked with books for people in a neighborhood to read and return started in Wisconsin in 2010. Since then, the trend has grown across the world to include an official Little Free Library non-profit organization where the libraries can be registered and included on a map that not only has photos of the libraries with a short summary of who built them and maintains them, the address and the GPS coordinates.

The map only includes libraries that have been registered with the organization. Registration costs about $40. A plaque with a unique charter number is placed on all registered libraries, including seven in Willmar. Registered libraries are also located in Spicer, Kandiyohi, Norway Lake, Raymond, Paynesville, Benson, Clara City, Montevideo, Madison and Litchfield.

Some libraries in Willmar and neighboring communities that are maintained by churches, individuals or other organizations are not registered and are not on the map.

When the libraries are registered and on the map it makes it easier for people to find them, said Gilles.

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Gilles said the number of libraries on the map shows that Willmar is a “community of readers and book lovers and sharers.”

However, she said there are parts of the town where there is currently no neighborhood Little Free Library.

Free blueprints for building them and tips for installing them are available at the Little Free Library website. Organizations and individuals who build the libraries are encouraged to become stewards to make sure they are kept in good condition, filled with books and ready to meet the reading needs of kids and adults in the neighborhood.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at clange@wctrib.com or 320-894-9750
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