Neighbourhoods

Canada’s biggest community of little free libraries has only grown stronger through COVID-19

Some of the book exchanges have pivoted to hand sanitizer and puzzles, but books are still circulating

By Emily Fagan
December 12, 2020
Neighbourhoods

Canada’s biggest community of little free libraries has only grown stronger through COVID-19

Some of the book exchanges have pivoted to hand sanitizer and puzzles, but books are still circulating

By Emily Fagan
Dec 12, 2020
Photos supplied by Teale Phelps Bondaroff. Illustration by Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
Neighbourhoods

Canada’s biggest community of little free libraries has only grown stronger through COVID-19

Some of the book exchanges have pivoted to hand sanitizer and puzzles, but books are still circulating

By Emily Fagan
December 12, 2020
Canada’s biggest community of little free libraries has only grown stronger through COVID-19
Photos supplied by Teale Phelps Bondaroff. Illustration by Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

On the edges of Victoria’s streets sit tiny, whimsically painted boxes full of stories. Some are made from old end tables, telephone booths, or newspaper boxes. Others were built to resemble the house of their owners; a few are powered by solar panels.

One Fernwood box takes a simpler approach to drawing in readers, with big, cartoonish lettering on its doors imploring passersby to “Read!”

In total, Greater Victoria has 394 recorded little free libraries—a number that has skyrocketed by more than 100 since the start of the pandemic. While not all of these are members of the trademarked Little Free Library international organization, they all carry similar distinguishing traits, and of course, books.

“The rate of growth is bonkers,” said Teale Phelps Bondaroff, a board member of the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network who founded Victoria’s robust mapping system for little libraries. 

Since 2017, he’s seen both new and established book boxes join the map at a rate of about 100 a year. But this year, the growth has been unprecedented. The 300th little library opened this May, and the total is fast approaching 400 by the day.

“I can say with confidence that Victoria has the highest density of documented little libraries in Canada, possibly further afield,” said Phelps Bondaroff.


‘Coral reefs for community’

Although some little libraries temporarily shut their doors at the start of the pandemic, many have now expanded to play host not just to books, but canned goods, puzzles, hand sanitizer, and other goods to meet community needs. Several have become dedicated “giving boxes,” or little free pantries, full of free toiletries, food, and other goods donated by the community. 

For longtime Victorians like John Threlfall, it took the pandemic—and widespread closure of public libraries—to finally take the leap and build his own little free library. For Threlfall, this became an appealing alternative to fill his need for access to free books. He hasn’t looked back since.

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“I got totally hooked,” he said. “I’ve been using them for a few years around the city, but I never thought about putting one in until COVID-19 hit.”

Some little free libraries, left unattended, can grow crowded with unsolicited religious literature, outdated textbooks and damaged books. But Threlfall became a self-appointed amateur librarian, obsessively curating and documenting each book that landed in his book box. He keeps a backup shelf in his garage to ensure the collection remains diverse and alluring. Threlfall built a second little library soon after, and is now working on a third.

More Victorians have taken to the streets since the start of the pandemic, Threlfall said—including himself. He estimates he’s visited over 150 little libraries on walks through the neighborhood.

“Little libraries are coral reefs for the community; you meet the most amazing people there,” said Phelps Bondaroff.

In his weekly bike trips around the city to restock little libraries, Phelps Bondaroff said he regularly engages with strangers in conversations that he has come to value for their often unexpected depth. These book boxes are a meeting point for anyone who seeks a good book—regardless of age or housing situation.

“Even though we’re not gathering, there’s interactions between neighbors that I wouldn’t have had otherwise if we didn’t have a little library,” said Michelle Mulder, a longtime little library owner. “That’s been really cool.”

A standout from such interactions this year for Mulder came when she greeted a woman at her little free library who was taking measurements and photographs of the structure. 

More than a book exchange

The woman was Dulma Karunarathna, a senior lecturer in archaeology from Sri Lanka working as a visiting research fellow for the University of Victoria’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society. In the short time since her family moved to Victoria, Karunarathna fell in love with the city’s expansive network of little libraries. 

She discovered her first book box by chance on a walk with her family in February.

“I thought it was a small birdhouse,” Karunarathna said. “By the time I reached it, I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

Accessibility to free books in neighborhoods across the city hit home for her, she said, as she considered the opportunities a little library could bring to those in her home town of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. Since, Karunarathna has made it her mission once a week to walk to, thoroughly examine, and document as many little free libraries as she can to share with an online Sri Lankan community.

“I have now walked more than 655 kilometres in Victoria,” she said, now with 217 little libraries under her belt. “I know most of the streets and neighbourhoods.”

Karunarathna used her findings to coordinate the construction of three little free libraries in Sri Lanka, which she says have been received with overwhelming support by the local community. 

The first of the Sri Lankan little free libraries was opened in September, when many schools in the area were closed due to COVID-19 and access to books was scarce. Children lined up to bring books to the little library the first day it opened, and enjoyed their new reads in nearby chairs brought by Karunarathna’s students in a makeshift, open-air school.

Karunarathna received messages of gratitude from local mothers, overjoyed to see their children reading instead of watching television that day.

Children gather around the little library Karunarathna helped build in her community in Talawa, Sri Lanka. Photo: Submitted


“My dream came true,” she said. “I thank all the Victorian little library builders [for that].”

On December 7, she opened up her first Victorian little free library outside of her apartment, with the help of her two children.

The community of little free “librarians” and readers is undeniably strong in Victoria. After six months, Phelps Bondaroff often notices the community begins to maintain the book box organically. But for many of the librarians, it’s a hands-on hobby: both Threlfall and Phelps Bondaroff curate their collections and library decor for holidays.

Mulder, a children’s author, credits Victorian’s love of books and the city’s walkability to the success of little free libraries. 

“I find it fascinating what each neighborhood offers up,” she said. “They wind up having personalities of their own, whether they mean to or not.”

As more Victorians than ever build and submit their book boxes to the map during the pandemic, Phelps Bondaroff sees the connections made through the little libraries as one of their most crucial community services.

“That’s the magic of little libraries, I think,” he said. “It’s more than just a book exchange.”

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