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." Amazon.com 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.

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  • Asdflalksj

    Just a point of note, libraries are free and typically proving residency is not an issue.  Anyone who has been to a library lately knows there are plenty of books on the shelves. I question the entire premise of Ourshelves model. Libraries provide outreach services and delivery of materials to homebound patrons, such as the elderly and disabled, for free. Does Ourshelves do that? Seriously, whatev.

  • Kristina

    Yes, that is what Ourshelves does. We provide shelving and books for women and children in emergency domestic violence shelters, men and women in homeless shelters, and elders and disabled. At least, those are the ones we have built for so far. We have also provided PSAT and SAT workbooks for a local nonprofit working to help underprivileged youth apply to college. We consistently return to the shelters to take requests for books and update the selection based on residents interest.

    We have new books ready to donate to a children's longterm care hospital. The hospital already has  shelves but needed more new books - they can't take used ones for health reasons.

    We'd like to build in immigration resource centers and veteran hospitals as well. The books stay onsite and are not part of a book mobile, scheduled delivery. Residents get to keep the books and decide which new ones come their way.

    We are not competing with the public library. We understand the public library (paid for by taxes) is available to many, if not most of a city or town's inhabitants. How lucky we are! However, there are still many people who cannot use the public library - like those previously mentioned - and we thought it would be nice to share books. A lot of people are toying with Kindle libraries and don't need or want their printed books anymore. A lot of times, when someone moves, their books don't make it with them. There are many situations that can cause people to give up their books, and there are a lot of people who have no other free access to books. We figured we'd help introduce both groups to one another, in order to benefit both.

    We understand that Ourshelves is not for everyone - it's for those who choose to participate, however they would like - by borrowing books, donating books or both. It need not offend those who wish not to, though. In fact, we find it hard to see how it could, but we do appreciate critical feedback.

    We don't have much of an internet presence yet, but you're welcome to read more at ourshelves.org. You can always write Kristina@ourshelves.net with further questions.