Little Free Library box outside Louisville Urban League
Little Free Library box outside Louisville Urban League

Little Free Library Program Having a Lasting Literary Influence

You’ve probably noticed the dollhouse-like buildings dotted throughout Louisville, perched upon posts situated in front of churches, schools, stores and even your neighbors’ homes. What are they, and why are they there? These whimsical structures are part of an international program called Little Free Library.

The name says it all. These tiny houses store all kinds of books for all ages. Patrons can pick up fiction books with genres that include fantasy, humor and real adventure, or nonfiction covering topics such as cooking, sewing, mechanics, fishing or travel. A library card is never required. The Little Free Library slogan is “Books are always free.”

The concept for the Little Free Library program began in 2009 in Hudson, Wisconsin. The first library was built by Todd Bol as an homage to his late mother, June Pattridge Bol, who was a teacher, librarian and avid book lover.

Domestically, Little Free Libraries can be found in all 50 states. Throughout the world, they are located in 91 countries and on all continents except Antarctica. Don’t be surprised if you take a journey to Argentina, Bermuda, China, Denmark, Taiwan or Zambia and see a Free Little Library. According to the official website, there are 150,000 Little Free Libraries worldwide.

Closer to home, one organization that’s instrumental in promoting the growth of these free book boxes is Metro United Way (MUW), specifically in neighborhoods on the west side of town. This effort began locally in 2014, thanks to resident Mary Sullivan, who was an MUW employee for 42 years. She now holds the honor of being the volunteer coordinator for donations and distribution of books for MUW’s Little Free Libraries.

Sullivan’s involvement with Little Free Libraries happened somewhat by accident. She admits she really wasn’t one to surf the internet, especially during work hours, but one day a phrase online caught her eye: “If you’re interested in this, you may be interested in Little Free Libraries.” A post about the libraries explained that they provide an excellent way to distribute books into neighborhoods where there are no libraries, where the reading rate is low, or where there aren’t books in homes. It continued by saying that books in the home equal better reading skills, better grades and educational success.

Little Free Library box
Little Free Library box in metro Louisville

One of Sullivan’s departments was volunteer engagement at MUW. She approached her boss about MUW participating in Little Free Libraries by reaching out to community groups to donate books or hold book drives. She explains that one of MUW’s goals is to improve the outcomes and reduce disparities for children from birth to age 5, and also create a healthy system and produce equitable outcomes for youth aged 6 to 24.

Sullivan’s boss gave her the green light. MUW began partnering with the Bingham Fellows program of the Leadership Louisville Center to get the project off the ground. That program’s leaders were looking at ways to become involved with programs that would benefit the neighborhoods west of 9th Street.

Gwen Kelly, a member of the team and a neighborhood advocate living in the 40210 zip code area, challenged the education team to bring 40 Little Free Libraries to that area. At that time, the 40210 area had the lowest reading rate for children attending Jefferson County Public Schools. MUW was granted permission from 15 homes and organizations to place libraries in what is known as the California neighborhood.

In October 2014, MUW held a workday at Victory Park to paint the libraries, but it was too cold and the ground was too hard to install them at the time, so they had to wait until the following spring to complete the project.

Besides the California neighborhood, MUW libraries are located in the 40202, 40203, 40208, 402111 and 40212 zip codes, which are in the Algonquin, Parkland, Portland, Shawnee and Smoketown/Shelby Park areas.

Currently MUW has 36 libraries. Each library receives between 45 and 50 books every two weeks. “We focus on placing in 15 books for children, which is about birth to second grade, 15 books for youth, which is mid-grade school to high school, and five to six books for adults,” Sullivan explains.

That comes to about 3,000 books per month placed in the libraries.

Book distribution is done with the help of loyal volunteers. There are six who go out on the biweekly run. They first make a stop at the MUW office to pick up boxes of books. The majority of the volunteers have five or six libraries to fill. One volunteer, Kathy Kremer, has eight libraries that she visits.

Kremer began volunteering with the program in 2015 when she heard about the libraries through her book-club cohorts.

“They sent word out that MUW was starting this Little Free Library project, and they needed volunteers to deliver the books,” she says. “I signed up because my parents were readers and they took us to the library. My aunt worked at the public library for 43 years. So it’s just a natural thing for me and I have an inclination to volunteer.”

Kremer goes on to explain that each library has a distinct personality of sorts.

“For example, one is in front of a Boys & Girls Club so I try to put all categories in there, because adults will have kids, and kids will have parents, and they all like to read,” she says. “I try to have a mixture of fiction and nonfiction adult and children’s books. Everyone has different tastes and they have different reading abilities, so trying to pack all of that into one little library is kind of a challenge.”

Kremer also services a Little Free Library in front of a middle school, and says that teachers have asked her to stock it with books that focus on careers. There’s another one in front of an apartment building for lower-income residents. “I’ve gotten requests for cookbooks and large-print material,” she says. “Another one is in front of a church, so I try to keep the books G rated.”

In 2023 Kremer received the WLKY Bell Award for her hard work and volunteer hours with the project, along with other volunteer work she does for the city.

Books are donated through a number avenues, by individuals, businesses and organizations.

Back of Little Library Box

“We’ve had books from retired teachers, and we get books from families who are moving,” Sullivan explains. “The Main Library and the Friends of the Library have been a great resource. After their book sale last April, they donated 52 boxes of books to us. Those were the books that didn’t sell. Those books went into the little libraries that month and they were all probably gone by mid-June.”

Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble have also been great supporters, as well as two young volunteers.

“One time we were really low on books, but there were two children, unbeknownst to us, that held lemonade stands during the summer, and they had signs up saying that the money would go towards gift cards to buy books for the Little Free Libraries,” Sullivan says. “We received two gift cards for $100 each, and they were both for Books-A-Million.”

Little Free Libraries not associated with MUW can be found throughout the metro area, including Jeffersontown, Middletown and St. Matthews. Visit and search for your area as well as other locations.

If you are interested in volunteering with the MUW’s Little Free Library program, you can reach Mary Sullivan or Dulce Solorio at 502-583-2821.

You can also bring books to the MUW building at 334 East Broadway in Louisville, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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