a neighborhood book exchange on the corner of a neighborhood intersection

Research Digest: The Rise of Neighborhood Book Exchanges

There is something striking in stumbling upon a small hutch perched by the sidewalk and filled with books. It is unexpected, unusual, charming.

Recently, these neighborhood book exchanges have captivated mainstream media; hundreds of media stories have been published in the last few years. But neighborhood book exchanges have been quietly propagating through North American neighborhoods for twenty years, at least. Why have they suddenly captured so much attention?

In Spring 2012, I helped initiate the first formal study of neighborhood book exchanges. We designed and conducted an exploratory study to investigate different aspects of neighborhood book exchanges. We hoped to gain insight into why and how neighborhood book exchanges were being created and used.

We analyzed media articles, interviewed stewards, surveyed neighborhoods, and collected observational data—reviewing the data and refining our questions as we progressed, in keeping with Grounded Theory methodology. Eventually, we formulated a detailed account of neighborhood book exchanges as illustrated in the media and experienced on the ground. We published our first paper reporting on our results. Here, I will briefly summarize what we did and what we found.

In the Media

Beginning in spring 2011, there was a surge in media coverage on neighborhood book exchanges. Hundreds of articles were published in North America within the next few years. We analyzed a sample of articles published between spring 2011 and spring 2013 to capture the media’s account of neighborhood book exchanges.

Media articles present a singular, global narrative.

The coverage was overwhelmingly positive. Only 5% raised a concern or problem. And 80% of the articles attributed the exchanges to promoting literacy or building community. Some other attributions were mentioned—for instance, that the exchanges are a sustainable initiative (5%) or digital resistance (17%)—but these were far less common.

At this time, the mission of Little Free Library, a non-profit dedicated to propagating and supporting these exchanges, was “to promote literacy and a love of reading; to build a sense of community; to build more than 2510 little free libraries”. The parallel between these objectives and the media narrative is striking.

Significantly, 94% of the articles mentioned Little Free Library. Most related the story of its founding: how Todd Bol built the first little free library and then began helping others do the same.

The media was captivated by the account of neighborhood book exchanges promoted by Little Free Library. But this singular, global narrative contrasts with the grounded, local narratives we observed in six neighborhoods in Vancouver.

On the Ground

Six book exchanges were installed in Vancouver neighborhoods between 2011 and 2013. One of the exchanges was a registered Little Free Library; the other five exchanges were unaffiliated. We collected data on each exchange over five months: observational data—photos of the exchange and an inventory of its contents—was collected once a week for twelve weeks, and interviews with the stewards were conducted before and after the observational period.

For this initial report, we focused on the experiences of those who created the exchanges. We considered why the stewards crafted their exchanges and how they perceived its role in their neighborhoods.

Neighborhood book exchanges are grounded, local initiatives.

All six exchanges in our study were installed in “soft-edges”, spaces in neighborhoods that blur the boundary between public and private property. Typically, these spaces stand empty; the grassy strips between the road and the sidewalk, private property and the sidewalk, for example. By installing a neighborhood book exchange in the soft-edges, the stewards aimed to transform these “boring”, unused areas into lively, shared spaces.

The stewards hoped the exchanges would draw neighbors into these spaces and encourage them to engage with their neighborhood. The exchanges were designed to support a number of local interactions:

• walking and biking around the neighborhood
• bumping into and chatting with neighbors
• gathering for block parties or other neighborhood events
• reading, especially reading by young children
• sharing books that would otherwise sit, unused in homes
• disseminating news on local events and issues
• participating in fun, anonymous exchanges of books, messages, and other information

Different stewards emphasized or framed these local interactions differently. But all the stewards designed their exchanges to encourage interactions among their neighbors.

Notably, all of the stewards were involved in other initiatives to leverage soft-edge spaces in their neighborhoods—community gardens and gathering spaces, for instance. In each case, they aimed to transform neighborhood spaces, creating opportunities for neighbors to engage with their neighborhood.

But in their efforts to transform soft-edge spaces, the stewards had to engage, directly or indirectly, with city legislation. Some avoided issues by keeping to the fringes of private property. Some worked tirelessly to acquire permission to change public property, while others assumed implicit permission and hoped for the best.

Regardless of how they engaged with the city, all the stewards agreed that neighborhood spaces should be shaped by neighbors—not the city. They held that the city should support, either by providing funding or by not impeding, how neighbors could alter the soft-edge spaces in their neighborhoods.

Global & Local Narratives

The popular media narrative presents a global movement to promote literacy and build community. But, interestingly, none of the stewards in our study identified with these goals—not even the one steward who registered her exchange with Little Free Library.

Instead, the stewards emphasized their own nuanced ideas regarding the role of their exchanges in their neighborhoods. These ideas were specific and detailed; the stewards described how they wanted neighbors to engage, instead of adopting grand and vague goals. As one steward quipped: Build community? No. What does that even mean?

The stewards discussed the role of their exchanges within the boundaries of a few blocks; they never extended the role of neighborhood book exchanges beyond their immediate neighborhood. And as they discussed city legislation and involvement, they emphasized the role of neighbors in shaping neighborhood spaces.

The stewards in our study had a decidedly grounded, local narrative—a stark contrast to the singular, global narrative presented in the media. We wonder how many other neighborhood book exchanges share this grounded, local perspective. And we wonder about the influence of Little Free Library, as they continue to promote their mission and sell their support. Will stewards influenced by Little Free Library adopt the organization’s goals? Or will they (re)design their exchanges to suit their own neighborhoods?

Neighborhood book exchanges are not a new phenomenon; they have been (re)designed by neighbors for twenty some years, only recently becoming a popular fascination. It will be interesting to see the next evolution of narratives, both in the media and on the ground.

Our complete research report was published in Information Research. It is openly available here.

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