Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves line the walls of Heather Ray’s at-home library, a point of pride for the 48-year-old UF physics professor. When she finds a title she hasn’t picked up in a while, she’ll place it in a local Little Free Library — one of several community book boxes that have popped up around Alachua County.
Little Free Library is a nonprofit organization that works with local community members from over 100 countries to provide free and easy access to literature using sharing boxes. The program follows a “take a book, share a book” mentality, with individuals being expected to donate an item of their own in exchange for whatever they take.
Over a dozen Little Free Libraries are registered in the Gainesville area, according to the website’s virtual map.
Ray started out by donating books to two library boxes by her daughter's preschool, but she decided to open her own Little Free Library outside her office on UF’s campus three years ago.
“I was having just hordes of students in my office hours, and it was somewhere in that time period when I said, ‘Well, this is ridiculous, why don't I just start a free little library right outside of my office?’” Ray said. “I have enough foot traffic for there to be high turnover and then I'll just take my books into campus.”
Initially, Ray said, she didn’t see the foot traffic she expected because classes had moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since classes shifted back in person, Ray has offered more limited office hours, but she said she still sees activity in her library.
“I’m able to see if there’s books that have stuck around for a while,” Ray said. “I’ll actually remove them, and I’ll take them to a different free little library in the hopes that they’ll hit a different market.”
To officially register a Little Free Library, individuals can purchase a charter from the organization’s website. These charters provide access to register libraries onto the global library map, which allows visitors to locate boxes in their area. Owners are also sent a plaque for their boxes.
Karen Johnson, 70, is one Gainesville resident who manages a Little Free Library outside her home.
Johnson, a retired librarian and elementary school media specialist, said she had wanted to get involved with the organization since first reading about it 20 years ago, but she felt it was too time consuming and expensive to make happen on her own.
“I decided that I was going to do it one day and just never got around to it,” she said. “It's a little daunting, the actual construction.”
In 2022, Johnson’s husband and daughter conspired to build the box as a birthday and Christmas gift.
With her experience as a librarian, Johnson is dedicated to bringing classics and good literature into her box and community, she said. An avid thrift shopper, she said she uses her box as an excuse to constantly update her selection and offer something for everyone, from a toddler to a college student.
While many Little Free Library owners purchase a charter to register their box with the organization, there are also plenty of unofficial boxes, something Johnson said she’s noticed across Gainesville. One of these unofficial libraries is located on the ground floor of the Reitz Union and includes books, movies and CDs exchanged by students and visitors.
Many of these boxes feature classic novels and award-winning texts, Johnson said, but there are also many hidden gems waiting to be discovered.
Little Free Libraries are also a way for individuals to revisit parts of their childhood.
April Hines, UF College of Journalism and Communications librarian, grew up visiting the library with her mother. Coming from a low-income family, Hines said, libraries provided a prime source of entertainment.
Now, as she raises her 8-year-old son, Hines said visiting Little Free Libraries in her neighborhood offers a new way to share literature with him – just like her mother used to do with her. In addition to exploring new genres, Hines has also reconnected with classic children's books she read when she was younger, she said.
Many owners decorate their Little Free Library boxes. These personal touches are a big draw for Hines, she said, because each library has its own unique personality.
“It's well-loved and well taken care of,” Hines said of her neighborhood box. “That makes a big difference.”
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Gracey Davis is a UF journalism junior and Avenue staff writer. Gracey is a self-described girl boss, secretary for FMSA and a passionate Philly sports fan. If you're looking for her, try the Marston basement, where she often pretends she's a STEM major.