• 04.05.13

Citizen Libraries Are The New Home For The Printed Word

Ourshelves is a library in San Francisco that’s free to anyone and focused on getting books into places where it’s often hard to find reading material.

The survival of the library, at least in its current form, appears tenuous. Library conferences buzz with anxiety about “reinventing themselves.” can deliver a lifetime of reading to almost any electronic device in minutes. Computers, DVDs, and “digital activity centers” are crowding out books on library shelves. Budget cuts are hitting libraries hard in many major cities.


In spite of this siege, reading is not exactly waning. More books are published today than ever before, and the percent of Americans saying they have read a book during the last year, say Gallup and Pew, is still at around 80%, down from about 92% in 1978.

For book lovers dismayed at the disintegration of a reading culture, however, there is no going gently into that dark night. All it takes to start a library, people are discovering, is a few books, shelves, and a belief that reading and sharing books is a profoundly powerful experience for many people.

One of those new spaces is Ourshelves, a San Francisco lending library open to everyone, no matter how little they can pay, or where they live, says Kristina Kearns, its bibliophile founder. “I wanted to create a space where everyone was welcome, and there was no one who would not be able to afford it,” she says about Ourshelves, housed in a tiny room at the back of an antiques shop, Viracocha, in the San Francisco’s Mission district. “Anyone can engage with books, however they would like.”

Kearns thought of the idea after returning from Greece–where she had been living and working at a small bookstore called Atlantis Books–and was unable to secure a library card without proof of residency or find the money to purchase new books. Now she’s passing out hundreds of them each month to the 275 or so members (who pay on a sliding scale) for the conversation, camaraderie, and 3,000 or so volumes borrowed so far (there is virtually no theft or missing books). And Ourshelves is expanding: Kearns plans to open 10 free libraries in safe houses, shelters, and student centers around San Francisco, as well as expand into underutilized public spaces such as old newspaper stands.

Another quietly radical, open-source effort is the Little Free Library which reimagines the library not as a government-run space, but just what happens when communities come together around printed words. LFL’s libraries are actually miniature wooden houses mounted on a post not much larger than a birdhouse, where anyone can donate or borrow a book. A glass door makes it easy for anyone to see inside and “join” the library.

Since Little Free Library was founded in 2009 by Todd Bol and Rick Brooks, it has exploded into something of a global movement. More than 2,000 such libraries are scattered across the world from India to Indiana.

They are all mapped here if you’re in need of a good read.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.