Beginning September 5, Tempe will offer a rebate of up to $300 to residents who build and stock tiny libraries on their property.
Mini libraries, most of which are registered with the nonprofit group Little Free Library, are publicly accessible containers of books that are available for anyone to borrow. Those who borrow are encouraged to "take a book, return a book," so that the boxes are always stocked with reading material — from Harry Potter to the New Yorker to the latest Nicholas Sparks to Goodnight Moon, almost anything qualifies.
The Little Free Library program dates back to 2009, when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, built a birdhouse-like replica of a one-room schoolhouse and mounted it in his front yard as a tribute to his mother, who was a teacher. The movement caught on. A registered nonprofit since 2012, Little Free Library now boasts more than 40,000 registered wee branches nationwide.
A few months ago, Tempe City Councilman Kolby Granville decided he wanted to build one.
"I just think it's a really cool program," says Granville, who was inspired when he saw a box in a neighbor's yard. "In a really simple way, it does everything cities try to do: encourage literacy, talking to neighbors, recycling of books, and fostering community."
Having read that some cities had cracked down on Little Free Library locations for violating zoning ordinances, he decided to check Tempe's municipal code before putting up his own.
As it turned out, putting a box of books in your front yard in Tempe was against the law.
Dismayed, Granville raised the issue at a council meeting.
"Encouraging people to have libraries and build communities — that's right up there with puppies and American flags," he says.
His colleagues on the council agreed. They were so enthusiastic, in fact, that they formed a task force to not just change the city code, but to find a way to promote the program in Tempe.
Long story short, the task force toyed with a few ideas, then decided to implement a rebate program.
"One of our concerns was what they would be stocked with," Granville says. "Let's say the city built it and put it on your property. If you then stocked it with [pornography] and someone sues, they're going to be suing the city. We don't want to be liable."
Granville adds that he hopes people will be "responsible adults" when participating in the book exchange, given that children are some of the libraries' most enthusiastic users.
Having settled on a rebate program, the task force decided to have people register their libraries with Little Free Library in order to qualify for reimbursement, so as to promote the cause.
Earlier this month, Granville presented the proposal to the Tempe City Council, which approved it unanimously. The city has set aside $10,000 — enough to reimburse 33 libraries at a minimum. Granville says he figures not every library will cost $300 to construct but that if the city blows through the money, there's a very good chance more can be set aside.
Might Tempe's program be the first such initiative in the U.S.? Granville says he doesn't know of any other. (New Times reached out to Little Free Library, but hasn't heard back.)
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"There are a lot parks and common areas in Tempe," Granville says. "If I was a manager of an apartment complex, I'd absolutely put this in. It would be so cool to be able to walk around the neighborhood and as you're walking your dog, be able to walk around your library. My hope is that we'll do this for a couple of years — it's just such a cool thing."
**Editor's note: A helpful reader from Southern California pointed us in the direction of West Hollywood, which enacted a similar rebate program earlier this year.
Phoenix photographer Candace Porth was kind enough to share her Little Free Library photos with New Times. Porth wrote a piece on her blog about the libraries, which you can read here. Click here to see more of Porth's work on Flickr.