Community

Little Free Library hopes to solve big problems

Jacqueline Ashby has crafted her living room into a welcoming learning environment for her three-year-old son. - ALINA KONEVSKI/ABBOTSFORD NEWS
Jacqueline Ashby has crafted her living room into a welcoming learning environment for her three-year-old son.
— image credit: ALINA KONEVSKI/ABBOTSFORD NEWS

Jacqueline Ashby's home is sunny, modest, and welcoming. Walking into her small living room by the big window, one could think that she has many more kids than just the one. Every wall and surface is designed with the child's learning brain in mind. One wall serves as backdrop for a little bookshelf at ideal height for Ashby's three-year-old son. Because he is a Dr. Seuss fan, there is a picture of a Wazzit in the closet and a Glock by the clock. The coffee table has a four-piece tray to inspire sensory development. There is sticky rubber dough, and cold rocks, for a child to discover.

Ashby, who holds a doctorate in education from Simon Fraser University, has devoted her career to promoting learning. It's this love of literacy, and her community spirit, that has motivated Ashby to set up a Little Free Library in Abbotsford.

"It promotes literacy. It encourages a sense of community. A lot of people on the street still don't know each other. It gets people out and talking to one another," said Ashby.

A Little Free Library is generally a small wooden box perched within the community, full of books that residents can borrow for free. There's no sign out process, no maximum check out time.

Ashby launched an online fundraising campaign on Kickstarter to fund the $365 project. When the bidding closed on Oct. 9, 2013, a total of 65 backers gave Ashby $791, over double her initial goal.

This is the first such library for the Fraser Valley. The other closest is in Surrey. There are eight LFLs scattered across B.C., and over 10,000 globally.

The idea is to give residents one more way to access books. Although there are three public libraries in Abbotsford, residents must find a way to commute to them, and are restricted by hours of operation, usage rules, due dates, fines.

Ashby's LFL will be forever open, staked on her front lawn in the serene residential neighbourhood in the hills of Sumas mountain. Ashby will maintain the books, continually replenishing the supply and ensuring kid-friendliness.

The system is a classic 'take a book, leave a book.'

"You would hope, if somebody values a good book, that after they're done reading it they'll return it," said Ashby.

She expects some books won't return, but that's alright as long as people are reading.

Twelve to fifteen of Ashby's favourites will go into the all-ages library first, from Judy Bloom, to Shel Silverstein, to Kurt Vonnegut, to Margaret Atwood.

"I'd like to have a balance between supporting adult and children's literacy," she said.

In Canada, 42% of adults have low literacy skills, according to Canadian Literacy and Learning Network. Fewer than one-fifth of people with the lowest literacy skills are employed.

But a Little Free Library is expected to do more than promote literacy. Ashby, a regular community organizer, wants to create connections between neighbours as well.

"When you install one of these structures in a neighbourhood, the idea is that people will bump into each other, children will bump into each other, in the exchange of books," she said.

The Rotary Club of Abbotsford-Sumas likes the project as well. It has partnered with the City of Abbotsford to install similar LFLs in the same city parks as the rotary club installed playgrounds. Bente Hansen, chair of the club's literacy committee, expects that three or four LFLs will be up before the end of 2013.

Vancouver, for example, has a growing network of LFLs in public places, housed in repurposed metal newspaper boxes painted red.

Ashby was able to obtain funding for her Abbotsford LFL because of Kickstarter. The crowd-funding website allows anybody with an idea to pitch their project to the world and request donations. When the site launched in Canada on Sept. 9, 2013, Ashby's library was one of the first projects up. Her well-designed page, complete with video, research on literacy in Canada, and incentives, was picked up by Kickstarter as a featured project. When Ashby woke up the day after the launch, her project was fully funded.

The support Ashby received online was as globalized as Kickstarter itself. Money flowed in from like-minded people from all over Canada and the U.S., and as far as France, Germany, and Israel – people who were even not directly benefitting from the project.

"It's been overwhelming to get that kind of support. I know I wasn't asking for a lot of money, but it meant a lot to me to see that people believed in an idea that I believed in as well," said Ashby.

Not every Kickstarter project gets funded, but the exposure for people with ideas is valuable in itself.

"It's a positive venue for people who want to create, who want to design, who want to make an impact," said Ashby. "I think it's been a great platform to further get this concept out into the public consciousness, so people are aware of it…For me, it's linked me globally to the rest of the world."

With the funds, Ashby is purchasing materials to build and install Abbotsford's first Little Free Library. She has been putting effort into the design to make it watertight, sturdy, resistant to mold, and decorative.

An official launch party is expected in December.

akonevski@abbynews.com
twitter.com/alinakonevski
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