SHERIDAN — Little Free Libraries are popping up all around Sheridan and here, just like around the world, the phenomenon is about more than sharing books.
Connie Kukal’s Christmas present from her son was a handmade box for books, which the family set up at 456 E. Montana Street across from the Henry A. Coffeen Elementary School.
“There are kids who don’t have a lot of food and, when I retire, maybe I could bake cookies and have afternoon snacks out for kids too,” Kukal said, planning to give more than she already has.
“My intention is to give to kids who just don’t have a lot. I feel really blessed to have what I have. I can remember when I didn’t have anything, and I just want to give back,” she said.
On the corner of Yonkee and 13th, Tyler Julian set up his own Little Free Library after experiencing them as an oasis of sorts during COVID-19 shutdowns.
“I grew up in Sheridan but left for college, and my wife and I were living in New Mexico for the last three years,” Julian said, adding that at the start of the pandemic, his area was under severe shelter-in-place orders.
“We were only really allowed to leave to go get gas, to get groceries and to walk your dog, basically,” Julian said. “We went on a lot of walks with our dog, and it became a thing where we would walk to find these Little Free Libraries.”
Anyone can build a box on their own, and registration with the Little Free Library nonprofit is not required. That is the route Kukal chose. But Julian, who did register his box, said the organization sends you a plaque to affix to your library box, and has a nationwide network of boxes and maps accessible online and through an app.
“In New Mexico, there were one or two nearby our house that happened to be registered, and they had a plaque that showed the website and the app. I saw that there were several others nearby, and it became something we wanted to do once we had our own house,” he said.
The first registered Little Free Library book-sharing box was built in 2009 in Wisconsin, according to the nonprofit, and today there are 100,000 registered Little Free Libraries in all 50 states and 108 countries. But as Kukal herself exemplifies, there are likely many others that are not registered, offering just as much to their communities.
“I live by a school and I just wanted to have a place for kids to get books,” Kukal said. “The library is clear across town, and I thought it might be nice to have a place for children to just come by and take a book for free, or exchange books.”
While she works days, she has noticed books come and go, and said her neighbors have seen people stop by. She and her son Mike Grover plan to stain or paint her library box after a hard winter, because they want it to be open year-round in the hope of brightening someone’s day.
“It is a little weather-worn from the winter, and I need to restock it,” she said. “But I have grandkids and I encourage them all to read. I also have books for adults in there. My son put in some books about fly-fishing, so if a kid wants to take a book for their parents, they can.”
Julian posted on Sheridan UpCycle right after setting up his library box this summer, and was immediately overwhelmed by the response.
“When I posted on Upcycle, my phone just kept going off. I didn’t expect that,” he said. “My wife and I wanted people to know what it was, and it kind of blew up. The next morning, I heard a car idling and there was someone out there looking at the books.”
His neighborhood is one that he thought could benefit from the library box.
“We have young families as well as old, and it is a neighborhood that has a lot of different people in it,” Julian said. “Part of it, it’s kind of a passive book recommendation. You’re able to share a book, which is exciting. The hope is that it will reach someone who needs books, or people who don’t have books at home.”
Last winter, the first Little Free Library book-sharing box was registered in Antarctica, established by Dr. Russell Schnell at the South Pole. There are now Little Free Libraries on all seven continents, according to the nonprofit.
“I think that the Little Free Library is such a universally great and easy-to-understand concept that there should be such libraries every few square miles in inhabited areas,” Schnell said in a press release.
Schnell’s passion for Little Free Libraries was inspired by not having books of his own growing up.
“I never had access to books as a child,” he said. “Whenever possible later in life I acquired books. Our daughter was once asked on a school questionnaire at age 8, how many books were in her home? She said about 1,000.
“The teacher thought that answer must have been fantastical. Our daughter was not far off,” he said. “Since I find it easy to build Little Free Libraries and take them around the world, I look upon the activity as a mission to seed them in areas where they might not otherwise be found.”
Similarly, when Julian experienced Little Free Libraries during the pandemic, they “became these beautiful community hubs, where people would put disposable mask boxes in there, and canned food in there, because we couldn’t be in contact with people,” he said. “And if a kid walks away with a book at the end of the day, that is a win.”