Across the UK, people are turning famous British red telephone boxes into micro libraries – casual book exchanges where there is no registration, and no fines. Anyone is free to take home a book, provided they bring it back or replace it with another.
It’s a novel, if simple idea, and one that has sprung up in response to a sustained threat facing the UK’s public libraries. The first such telephone box library was set up in Westbury-Sub-Mendip in Somerset was founded in 2009 after the local council cut funding for the area’s mobile library.
The parish council purchased the box, a Giles Gilbert Scott K6 design, for £1, and residents in the Somerset village of Westbury-sub-Mendip put up wooden shelves inside and donated their own books.
The phone box now houses titles from cooking books to the classics and blockbusters to children’s books
A similar story can be found in South London, where a local man named Seb Handley purchased a run-down telephone box from BT for £1, then used his own money and handyman skills to renovate the box and turn it into one of London’s smallest libraries.
“It’s definitely given people an excuse to stand around chatting,” Seb told Londonist magazine, “and in that sense, I suppose it’s really failed as a library.”
The micro-library exchanges operate on a system of trust. In local villages across England, where everybody knows everybody, this seems to have been a relatively simple sell. In some larger cities, however, the micro-libraries have on occasion had to rely on the local community to step in when the libraries have been vandalised.
This is a concept familiar to library curators across the globe. As Anne Beate Hovind, curator of the world famous ‘Future Library’ project, told us in an interview: “It’s all about trust […]I have no choice other than believing in the project. And there’s also trust the other way – because the coming generations have to trust us that we do these kinds of thing for them. They have to trust that we will do things that take care of the planet – that we create work of arts for them.”
Little free libraries
The entire ethos behind these libraries bring to mind the global phenomenon of the ‘little free libraries’, set up by a Wisconsin man named Todd Boll, who sadly passed away in October this year.
As a tribute to his mother, Boll made a small wooden house, just large enough for 20 books, and put it on a post at the end of his drive. Above it he wrote: “Free Books”. Before long, his idea became a book-sharing movement across the US and now little libraries appear all over the world.
While BT have said they will not be selling any more of their famous red telephone boxes for the foreseeable future, people looking to do something similar and set up their own mini-libraries can look to Boll’s legacy and create their own little free libraries. There’s even handy instructions on how to create your own library box on the Guardian.
Happy reading, comrades!