Erika Benson is a passionate reader. As a Family Nurse Practitioner at La Familia Medical Center on the Southside, she comes into contact with all kinds of families daily. Most have little disposable income, and from all the years she's spent getting to know her patients well, Benson knows many lack good books in their lives.
She felt she needed to take action, so Benson enrolled La Familia into the Reach Out and Read program, a national literacy organization. As the site director for the program at the Southside location, she ensures when youth come in for a well-child visit they'll also leave with a book.
Families without books proved to be abundant. Despite receiving a book at the end of their visit, the next appointment wouldn't come for months. Books, Benson found, weren't in her patients' homes, and for many, their La Familia visits proved the only times they received books. Benson started collecting used titles to give out for every appointment she had with a child. Siblings who came in with patients received books, too.
It still wasn't enough, Benson tells SFR, so a Little Free Library stewardship was the natural step forward.
Little Free Libraries are part of a larger movement meant to tackle book deserts—described by nonprofit Unite for Literacy as a geographic area where books and other reading materials are hard to obtain.
Lack of books is a serious issue for developing children. In their 2019 study Book Deserts: The Consequences of Income Segregation on Children's Access to Print, authors Susan B. Neuman and Naomi Moland found the mere presence of books in a home promotes curiosity among children, building a scholarly and pro-education attitude from an early age. The study also notes reading to children increases comprehension skills and can lead to better educational results—but working-class families don't always have the luxury of filling a house with literature.
La Familia's program offers gives them a place to start, and building the actual, physical book receptacle was a family activity for Benson. The Little Free Library nonprofit sells kits through its website—a quick scroll on the site store has them listed between $200 and $400—but Benson preferred a cuter and more memorable design.
"It all came from old tiles we had in the backyard. And from a table stand that was broken. It was all from old materials," Benson explains. "But we live on a dirt road with zero traffic. We realized we had to find a new home for it."
Her first idea was to place the Little Free Library outside her workplace, but soon realized foot-traffic was key. Not enough people walked by the Southside location, but La Familia's northside clinic on Alto Street could potentially see thousands pass by given the nearby park, baseball diamonds and basketball and tennis courts. Benson also realized it could serve dual purposes, both for passersby and for La Familia's patients. It would also give the nearby neighborhood a Little Free Library to call their own.
It was an immediate success, says Benson. Within a short time frame, books began cycling in and out on their own, and Benson keeps a steady supply coming as regularly as she can. Sometimes, she says, there are discouraging moments—trash and religious literature, political flyers and a host of other materials wind up inside the library. Vandals have struck, too, requiring even more dedication to repairs and cleaning, all of which must take place during whatever little and precious free time Benson has. Still, she says, one mysterious stranger repaired the little library once.
"I would love to say thank you to whoever did that. That's a big undertaking." Benson says. "It's funny, you can tell what a neighborhood thinks based on the books that are there. Maybe that's why some people want them to stay."
The hard work, she says, pays for itself.
"The other day a woman was walking her dog with a huge smile on her face at the library, and was just expressing to me how much she loved it and how happy it made her," Benson recalls. "There's no better present I could've received."
Santa Fe boasts three public libraries—the public library downtown on Washington Avenue, the La Farge branch on Llano Street and the newest (now 13 years old) on Jaguar Drive. While it might seem like going online to check out books for COVID-safe curbside service is simple, not every family has the opportunity.
Neuman and Moland's 2019 study also found access to vehicles, the broader issue of income inequality and internet connectivity all play a role in the formation of book deserts. In higher-income areas, the study found, there was one book for every 13 children. In areas where people have lower incomes, it was more like one for every 300—and even then, they were often coloring books.
"My patient population is low-income, first generation families that are raising children in our community. So I stress the importance of reading with your kids," Benson explains. "A lot of people can be scared of using a community service, especially if they are undocumented. Having it in front of a clinic helps serve neighborhoods that might be missing out."
Then and Now
The Little Free Library organization got its first "library on a stick" in Hudson, Wisconsin in 2010. Inspired by his late book-loving mother, Todd Bol built the inaugural version from an old garage door. Today, the nonprofit's website boasts 100,000 registered libraries worldwide as evidence in its fight against book deserts and what might best be described as a worldwide literary crisis.
Debate continues on just how effective Little Free Libraries are in tackling such. Curators like Benson are hyper-focused on a specific target audience, but this further emphasizes the onus placed on DIY ethos by the organization. Whom a library targets is up to individual stewards, and that includes which neighborhoods get libraries.
The nonprofit Unite for Literacy finds Santa Fe suffers from the same trends of being underserved when it comes to book access. Black, Hispanic and Indigenous communities face this struggle locally and nationwide. In Santa Fe, people who have low incomes also don't have as much access to Little Free Libraries. The St. Michael's Triangle and Southside neighborhoods (between Cerrillos and Agua Fria) have fewer than do neighborhoods with higher disposable incomes.
So why are so few Little Free Libraries in the neighborhoods that most need them?
The Neuman/Moland study finds Little Free Libraries tend to go up in neighborhoods with residents who already enjoy easy access to books. In Santa Fe, of the 32 Little Free Libraries SFR located, only one stands in a tract the US Census describes as low-income.
The organization itself doesn't provide much help. Potential stewards facing lower incomes are encouraged by the nonprofit to contact local organizations such as the Scouts, churches and Rotary clubs, and with no particular oversight, any data SFR could find was anecdotal.
"We measure our progress by looking at the number of Little Free Libraries and number of books shared annually," Margret Aldrich, a spokeswoman for Little Free Library, tells SFR. "We also look at the placement of Little Free Libraries through our Impact Library Program, which provides libraries and books at no cost to underserved areas throughout the United States."
That program is meant to directly serve struggling communities—including a specialty offshoot aimed specifically at Indigenous communities—but also requires a sponsor willing to perform caretaker duties for at least one year. Thus far, none have been registered in Santa Fe and there are only four in the entire state.
Little Free Lifestyle
A connoisseur of Little Free Libraries, Arlo James Barnes often peruses the cabinets around Santa Fe, searching for the overlooked treasures.
"They contribute to the world being weirder and more diverse and interesting in a good way, which I have to hope combats the way the world has become weirder in a bad way," Barnes says. "However, they're not all made alike."
What kind of things have they found?
"A little booklet with holes in the cardboard pages, meant to insert pennies for each year in the 20th century; the latter half had been filled," they tell SFR. "A plastic '20% Off!' sign. A VHS of a fictionalized biography of Stravinsky. A brick."
Barnes' finds in the Little Free Libraries range from the usual oddities to architecture guides, or books of poetry by Talking Heads leader David Byrne. Religious tracts commonly get left behind. Barnes even found a carefully molded paper mache figurine stored away in one.
One thing that's stood out to them is the number of self-published works that find their way in—independently published memoirs, books of poetry or creative works. Oddness aside, Barnes feels Little Free Libraries give authors an audience who'd otherwise have no readers.
"Reading has always been a part of my life since I learned how to do it," they say. "Despite all that time, if I allow myself to reflect about the process I never cease to be amazed anew by how what on the surface level is just an ordinary looking patterned object can let me share an often intimate moment with the writer, sometimes with people long dead. It's a powerful tool to connect minds, and we need things like that."
Those living the nomadic lifestyle, or who travel often, might find the little libraries offer the access they were looking for. Barnes sees the bookshelves at campgrounds and on random drives. They've come across impeccably crafted bookshelves and plainer ones—even a library made from of an old microwave.
"The books are communally owned rather than lent, they can be kept or 'returned' to a different public bookcase entirely. So it's nice for both living light but also to supplement a collection," Barnes explains. "It just depends on what people's situation is, and it's pretty flexible for a lot of ways people interact with books and the other kinds of media that fit on a bookcase shelf."
Barnes notes they aren't intended to be a one-size-fix-all for the problems of the broader community. To them, the little libraries give readers a chance to check out what might be missing from bookstores or government-supported library systems.
"They're not a replacement for funding and supporting institutional libraries and places of education and culture, but they're an often-great supplement to them," they express. "It covers gaps in curation that are infeasible for taxpayer-funded institutions to justify doing."
Barnes cites Sturgeon's law—the concept from author Theodore Sturgeon that 90% of everything is crap, but the 10% is worth the struggle to find it.
Their advice to the skeptical?
"If one doesn't impress, try finding another; or if it's in your neighborhood, try tending it from time to time. It's like a community garden of sorts."
Off the Beaten Path
Tee Iseminger has been looking to build a literary community just outside Santa Fe in the tiny town of Lamy for years, but community meeting spaces have often been scarce. The on-again-off-again Legal Tender restaurant has been in flux as far back as anyone can remember, but Iseminger has seen Little Free Libraries thrive in other towns she's called home. The Amtrak station became her de facto location. After all, if passengers were regularly happening through and waiting for trains, a Little Free Library would certainly provide something to do.
"I thought we could at least start with a small library since the nearest source of books was up at the Eldorado library, five to eight miles away," Iseminger tells SFR. "Honestly, I also think that getting a peek at what your neighbors are reading is a great way to get to know your community. Now I know we have at least one romance-loving neighbor, and maybe also one with a room or house full of old computers."
For a lifelong reader, that connection feels nice. Books, Iseminger tells SFR, were vital to surviving her parents' divorce when she was a child. They've always been there for her. Sharing that love, even not overtly, has been rewarding, even if nearby residents didn't know what to make of the bright red library built by Iseminger and her husband Shane.
"At first people started using the Little Free Library to dump all kinds of unwanted things if they were even slightly book-adjacent," she says. "They'd leave open boxes of magazines on top or next to the library, which would then get filled with dust and rain, and just made it feel like a spot for junk."
Despite those challenges, Iseminger says, participants eventually got the picture.
"It's been up about two years now and I'm always surprised that every time I drive by, the number of books in there has changed!" she explains. "It gets a lot more usage than I expected it would, given that Lamy is so small. People really seem to like it."
Not So Simple
The impact a Little Free Library can make on a small hamlet like Lamy or a larger town like Santa Fe is yet to be determined. Little Free Libraries is one one of many organizations fighting to alleviate growing book deserts, but dedicated stewards like Benson and Iseminger aren't always easy to find. The nonprofit itself has less than a dozen employees—it's the readers who do the work on their own time and their own dime.
But for people like Benson, watching over a library feels less like work and more like a civic duty. Either way, she says, seeing the impact amongst her patients matters most, even if she could use a few more Spanish language children's books.
"Every once in a while it gets low," Benson says. "But when you put a shoutout, people come out. I'm so thankful for that. I don't care whose hands the books go out to, as long as those hands have books."
What We Found
SFR went to check out some of the various Little Free’s around town. Here’s a list of just some of what we encountered:
The Christian Girl’s Guide To Money
by Rebecca Park Totilo
Alto Street's Little Free Library
The journey of a strong capitalist mind apparently begins at 8 years old! This curious little guide for young girls includes such fun activities as "give your money a name" (your choices are Oscar, Frog Skin, Bread or Spondulicks, to name a few). It encourages children to read the water meter, search for cable service deals in the newspaper, and for the child to call the phone service provider to get a better deal.
Such ways to start a business including charge your friends for Valentine's Day cards, creating your own ranch dressing or becoming a DJ.
There's some good advice in here, especially saving during an emergency or cutting wasteful spending where you can. This was curiously nestled beside a Book of Mormon.
Demystifying Social Deviance
by Stuart L. Hills
St. John's College Little Library (at the Atalaya Trailhead)
We get it Johnnies, you're smart and read smart psychology books. A chapter titled "Homosexuals in a Changing Society" might give you the shudders as this was published in 1980, but it's surprisingly progressive for its time. It examines both the male and female homosexual experience and a growing normalization—for the standards of 1980.
A thesis from the book seems to be why we labeled "deviant" for all things we didn't understand back in the day, from organized crime to addiction to everything else. It's actually a fascinating find if you're curious how psychology was evolving back when Jimmy Carter was president.
Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook (1981 Edition)
from Better Homes and Gardens & Sandra Granseth
Alto Street's Little Library
We all had a relative with this in their kitchen—once-crisp white pages faded to something on the yellow spectrum. Some of the photo examples are delightful, others a little horrifying. A quick look through the book taught me there's a difference between dark and light fruitcake. Also that an Omelet Sandwich Puff is a thing. This is a ninth edition published in 1981, and there's a handy wine pairing guide and a detailed guide to identifying cheeses by look and smell.
There was an odd sticky substance in the opening page, but I can't complain since the cookie bar recipe yielded some good results.
by Farida Sharan
Pueblo Alegre Little Library
I figured a book with vague imagery of the sky and galaxy would be dismissible, but Flower Child opens with a pretty touching introduction that made me appreciate it was written at all. Flower Child is one of those memoirs that wouldn't have gotten the big press, but what's not to love about a reflection of days-gone-by? It's also 400+ pages, impressive for someone just writing for the heck of it. Well done, Flower Child.
The Unicorn in the Garden (and other fables for our time)
from James Thurber, read by Peter Ustinov
West Alameda Little Library
What's up with West Alameda's cassette collection? What made you want to part with them now? This one has some markings, specifically noting the date of purchase in 1972. The great mystery here is that I'm not able to hear the secrets within. I didn't even realize until I saw this tape that I had no ability to play it (yes, cassette enthusiasts, I hear your complaints).
Editor's note: The name of the program "Reach out and Read" contained a spelling error that has been fixed.