By Tom Senkus

Take a book, leave a book. Maybe you’ve seen them on walks or bike rides, but Little Free Libraries (LFLs) are everywhere in SE Portland. Perhaps it’s fitting that a city that hosts one of the largest bookstores and a high percentage of degree holders (47% of the population above 25 years old) likes to share the gift of literature. Not only do they serve as a watering hole for thirsty minds, but LFLs serve a number of community-building benefits.

What is a Little Free Library? The backstory comes from a DIY origin. Started in 2009, a Wisconsin man wanted to honor his mother’s dedication to her years as a teacher. He built a replica of turn-of-the-century one-room schoolhouses that housed books free for anyone to read and that idea soon inspired others to do the same. What began as a humble tribute has blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon with thousands of LFLs in the USA as well as far-off countries like Egypt, China, and France.

Photo by Carlos West

They resemble a birdfeeder stuffed with a plethora of used paperbacks, magazines, chapbooks, and other types of literature. If a book seems appealing, simply take it. No need for a library card and due dates, as LFLs are built on an honor system. Think of it as a semi-anonymous way of paying it forward. Owners may not know who is taking their books, but they can know that they are being spread in their community.

They also represent a deliberate intent to spruce up the areas they inhabit by creating a sense of community and encourage literacy. They show that reading is a vital part of one’s self-education and enjoyment.

For those who want to curate their literary passions, owners can fill their little library with carefully selected literature. Even seemingly useless tomes can serve as inspiration to others. It’s not unheard of for nascent authors to distribute their work in these library boxes to reach others.

LFLs can boost your home’s perceived value. After all, when you see neighborhoods that host a few community book exchanges, does not one think wholesome and neighborly thoughts? It may be form of virtue signaling, but altruistic benevolence and bonding over literature is always a welcome presence. If someone does steal books and tries to sell them for their own benefit, at the very least it helps the unfortunate make ends meet.

If you’re curious about creating your own Little Free Library in front of your home, the process is easy. For those that like to build, the process is as simple as fashioning your own weather-proof enclosure and placing it in front of your home. Official registration with the Little Free Library company is a one-time payment that starts at around $40 for the rights to get an official charter sign, engraved with a unique charter number.

Don’t worry if you’re all thumbs. For the non-handy types, you can purchase a pre-made LFL or kit directly from the organization. Starting prices begin at $149 (and upwards), and they come with a free registration. Once you’re registered, you gain access to a network of benefits, including official recognition as a steward, a unique charter number and placement on the LFL map, and receiving the rights to use the Little Free Library name.

True to their origin, Little Libraries collected fees go towards another good cause: encouraging literacy. The Library non-profit has established a partnership with First Book, an “international non-profit social enterprise that provides access to free and low-cost new books and educational resources for those who work with children from low-income families.” Additionally, the company promotes its “Neighborhood Literacy Toolkit” for those that want to enhance their LFL and take a proactive approach for a good cause.

Portland may be renowned for its wonderful library system, but SE Portland is conspicuously underserved by the library system, with only the Belmont branch of the Multnomah County Library (1038 SE César E. Chávez Blvd) serving the community.

While LFLs may not fill the gap of a dedicated library system, these community book exchanges do bring a number of benefits to the SE neighborhoods that they inhabit.

If you’d like to know more about Little Free Libraries, their official website is at littlefreelibrary.org.

A list of registered LFLs In SE Portland:

2024-2026 SE Sherman St.

1928 SE Ladd Ave.

1711 SE Elliot Ave.

1738 SE 33rd Ave.

1307 SE 28th Ave.

SE 35th and Tibbets St.

SE Kelly St. and César E. Chavez Blvd.

SE 34th Ave. and Main St.

1236 SE 34th Ave.

SE 52nd Ave and Madison St.

SE 58th Ave.and Hawthorn  Blvd.

SE 59th Ave. and Stark St.

7814 SE Grant St.

SE 56th and Yamhill St.

524 SE 46th Ave.

4210 SE Pine St.

Source: littlefreelibrary.org/ourmap

Bear in mind that these are just the officially-registered LFLs.

There are a number of homespun imitations around SE Portland that deserve a peek inside too.