Occupy Wall Street's "people's library" helped popularize the idea of book lending that takes place outside of library stacks. Now ousted from Liberty Plaza, OWS's community library has been shuttling alternative books to New York City protests via shopping carts and other "mobile units." Meanwhile, guerrilla librarians are occupying street corners across the country with more permanent community-curated micro-libraries.
Since 2007, alterna-lender Colin McMullan has been learning the "quirks" of city regulations to figure out how to stash free reading materials in public spaces. McMullan launched Corner Libraries on a New Haven street corner before transplanting the idea to New York City. There, the project has toyed with distributing books via a chained-up sidewalk school desk, a book shed built to mimic a newspaper stand, a doghouse-shaped library living on a hand cart in Williamsburg, and now, micro-libraries built into tree pits on the city's streets. The library's current collection includes foraging tipsheet The Wild Food Trail Guide, a zine of handmade postcard art, and a mysterious self-made CD titled "I <3 Russian." "Members" are invited to donate their own pieces to the collection, or rent out materials for up to two weeks at a time.
McMullan isn't the only lender operating outside the official library system—a group called the Little Free Library has installed hundreds of micro-lending stations largely on private properties around the United States and Canada. Thanks to volunteer "stewards" who build and install the mailbox-like structures outside their homes and workplaces, readers can find free reading materials in a front yard in Fayetteville, Arkansas; a dentist's office in Madison, Wisconsin; and an elementary school in El Paso, Texas. Amateur lenders can start their own mini libraries with the help of the organization's crowdsourced tips, which help would-be librarians find repurposed building materials, curate their own unique collections, and learn how to protect against vandals.
Little Free Library was launched in the hopes of extending "the reach of your public library to parts of your community that might not otherwise use it," while Corner Libraries is "meant to encourage alternative and private presses" not supported by mainstream book lenders. McMullan told The Atlantic that he believes the library mindset "should be extended to everything, from tools to kitchen gadgets and sports equipment." Indeed, the librarians' websites read like manifestos, and the ethos is universal: "You can't steal a free book."