As Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-District 5) looks out at the small brown box shaped like a birdhouse, he sees more than shelves, a glass door and dozens of books.
He sees a valuable tool to build a sense of community, foster a love of reading and spark creativity by encouraging neighborhood book exchanges.
Schleifer and officials from LifeBridge Health and nonprofit Park Heights Renaissance gathered with children at Daysprings Park in Park Heights on Thursday for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to formally unveil a miniature library. Although the ceremony was postponed one month due to rain — the library still opened then — the excitement was palpable as wide-eyed and grinning youngsters eagerly navigated the contents inside the box.
“The kids love it,” Schleifer said. “When they were told they could take the books home and keep them, they felt like they hit the lottery.”
This tiny trove of books is one of two that has recently popped up near Pimlico Race Course, including on the corner of Avondale and Winner avenues. There are also plans to add a third nearby, Schleifer said, but a location is still in the works.
The idea is simple: Take a book, return a book or replace a book. Anyone can borrow from or contribute to the library with no obligations, fees or wait times. The boxes are regularly monitored, and they are restocked on an as-needed basis with donations from community members, organizations and other sources.
Cheo Hurley, executive director of Park Heights Renaissance, the nonprofit charged with implementing the city’s master plan for the area, said he feels the libraries are an invaluable resource.
“Creating small things such as little libraries at playgrounds and hopefully infusing schools is necessary for parents and residents to make sure everybody has an education and can read,” Hurley said. “I believe that helps us to help other people understand our world a little bit better.”
The miniature libraries are part of the Little Free Library movement, a grassroots group that has inspired many to place the book exchange on their properties.
Little Free Library is a nonprofit that was started in 2009 by two men in Wisconsin and has swelled to include more than 50,000 boxes in 70 countries, according its website. There are dozens scattered around Baltimore City, some officially listed on the Little Free Library’s website and some not.
Schleifer’s office partnered with LifeBridge and Park Heights Renaissance to help install the little libraries at the corners of Avondale Avenue and Clover Road and Avondale and Winner avenues. Schleifer said he knew the two locations would serve the neighborhood well since they each have a playground and regularly draw hordes of visitors.
“Kids are constantly playing on the playgrounds here,” Schleifer said. “This is just one step in the right direction for our community.”
Schleifer has also seen firsthand the benefits of Little Free Library. He and his 3-year-old daughter have regularly visited the one located near his Cheswolde residence since it opened, and Schleifer said his daughter thoroughly enjoys using the book exchange.
“[My daughter] has a good time with it, and we love it,” Schleifer said.
The little libraries have taken on important meaning in neighborhoods in the 21215 ZIP code, where the nearest public library, the Reisterstown Road Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, is about two miles away.
The idea to place the libraries near Pimlico started last year, Schleifer said, when he was door-knocking during his run for office and neighbors informed him of the lack access to books.
“In this neighborhood, kids can’t just walk a mile or two away from their house,” Schleifer said. “It’s just not accessible. We needed to bring something closer to them.”
Knowing that the libraries are on playgrounds would sit well with Rebecca Polen “Becky” Hartman, said her brother, Larry Polen. Hartman spent almost 40 years as a social worker at Sinai Hospital, which is owned by LifeBridge, before she died from cancer in August 2016 at the age of 70.
“Becky loved three things more than anything else: kids, books and the blues. So we’re hitting two out of three today,” he said, which drew laughs from the crowd. “She would be very happy.”
And the impact has already been noticeable. Books have been flying off the shelves and replaced with new selections of all kinds: fiction, non-fiction and picture books.
Schleifer is pleased with what the boxes have accomplished and hopes their presence serves as an inspiration for years to come. So far, he said, the response from neighbors has been overwhelming.
“It’s great to circle around the block to see that people are taking the books and reading them and that we can just keep refilling them,” Schleifer said.