Friday, 13 June 2014

The Little Free Libraries with an important message

Life has not been the same since my other half and I became hosts of a Little Free Library in Walthamstow, East London. It sounds dramatic but never before have I felt the urge to nip out the front door, dressing gown-clad at 6.30am, to check the overnight activity within the house shaped box perched on our front gate. I met more neighbours in the first 72 hours of it being installed than I had in the seven years I’ve lived here.

Colourful "Cartoon Cathouse" by illustrator Tim Reedy

Sometimes I peer out the window to watch the faces of children light up as they spot it (ours is a cartoon cathouse painted by my partner Tim Reedy so it’s a kid-magnet). Lovely upbeat comments from adults waft through our open windows. I feel incredibly proud, if not a little smug to have got one of these libraries. Our cat, who tends to spend most of his time out in the front now, soaking up the adoration from passing children is also getting a little too big for his boots.

But there is a serious message too. These wonderful, fun Little Free Libraries encourage everyone to pick up a book. No questions asked, no money paid, no reasons needed. They walk by and if they see a book they fancy, they take it. They’re reading. And that’s wonderful.

I teach literacy to adults in my borough of Waltham Forest. I know for a fact that literacy is a problem in my backyard, just as it is in yours. According to the National Literacy Trust, one in six people suffers with reading and writing. This means their literacy is below the level expected of an 11-year-old.

There is a lot of focus on children’s literacy and of course that is important. However, when someone leaves compulsory education, they can flounder; hiding their problems from others by asking their partners to fill out forms and such like. Often those people can spend years, decades, if not all their lives, not being able to read and write effectively.

Some of my students sacrifice their evenings to study with me because they find their reading skills are being superseded by their children’s. Others are there because they are being passed over for jobs and they want to improve their career prospects. Many are embarrassed about their literacy skills. They lack confidence and can be morbidly quiet. Literacy is not just reading and writing, but speaking and listening too. I see that just as their reading and writing improves, so do their verbal skills.

These people are busy. Most have jobs or children or both. When we start the course and I ask if they read books, they tell me they don’t have time. Some lack the confidence of tackling a book aimed at adults with their long words and thick pages. That’s why they prefer to read to their children, and when their kids can read better than them, they’re at a loss.

We do work with the public libraries and in no way do these Little Free Libraries supplant the wonderful work they do. Yet it’s a fact of life that many of my students don’t visit the libraries or if they do, it’s with their kids, to find books for them.

So if one person picks a book out of a Little Free Library that they happen to walk past, then that is a brilliant, positive thing. In my class, once we have visited the main library together, we have regular discussions about what we’re reading. Not everyone is. But some are and they talk with passion about the plot or how dreadful the storyline is and it’s brilliant to hear.

So, yes, these Little Free Libraries are a fun addition to the neighbourhood. They are a colourful talking point and have encouraged people to pass their cherished books on. But there’s an important community benefit here too.

Kate Bohdanowicz, Little Free Library host and adult literacy teacher
London E17

For more details on London's Little Free Library Project visit