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Books in a birdhouse: Little libraries pop up on campus

Audrey Yao / Thresher

By Riya Misra     11/2/21 11:13pm

Across from Valhalla, the graduate student pub, sits a small red birdhouse. It boasts a handful of books: Al Franken’s “The Truth,” Lisa Lutz’s “The Spellman Files,” texts on managerial economics and “The Maze Runner” series. This little birdhouse is in fact one of Rice’s three Little Free Libraries. 

Little Free Library is a Wisconsin-based nonprofit aiming to expand literacy and book accessibility through public mini-libraries, according to the organization’s website. These small, weather-resistant boxes can be found in over 100,000 locations globally.

In 2020, the Center for Teaching Excellence’s Faculty Fellows brought such libraries to Rice: there is one outside of Valhalla, one near Brochstein Pavilion and one outside the hammocks near Fondren Library. These small libraries were installed to encourage students to read for pleasure, according to Lisa Balabanlilar, chair of the CTE Faculty Fellows.

“Two and a half years ago, [the Faculty Fellows] were discussing just how hard it is to get students reading for pleasure on campus,” Balabanlilar said. “I require my students to send me a photo of themselves reading poetry and they can’t bring themselves to do it. They tell me they haven’t read a novel since coming to Rice. We thought it would be great for the campus to have low-stakes access to books that are just fun: Harry Potter, meaningful spiritual books, books for any age level. We want to make it easy for people to pick up a book when they’re in the mood.”

The libraries appear to have become a popular feature on campus, according to Sara Lowman, vice provost and university librarian. Lowman said she has seen many Rice and non-Rice community members alike use the libraries. 

“[During the pandemic] people were spending a lot of time alone in their houses,” Lowman said. “I think reading is a way to connect with other people. It’s a great way for Rice to connect with the neighborhoods around campus, too. There’s a mother who comes by with her kids from the neighborhood and they always look into [the libraries].”

The concept of Little Free Libraries is predicated on the idea of sharing books with fellow readers. 

“It’s fun to see what people leave in [the libraries] for each other to read,” Lowman said. “There’s this idea of sharing books with other people who like to read, so you don’t accumulate all these books. Books are meant to be passed on, read by someone else and talked about.”

Recently, the CTE Faculty Fellows announced a design competition for the campus’s little libraries. Project proposals, which are due on Jan. 19, are open to Rice students, staff and faculty. Each team must contain at least one student and have a budget of no more than $400. According to Balabanlilar, the judges include Lowman, University Architect George Ristow, architecture professor Nonya Grenadier, sculpture professor Lisa Lapinski and literature professor Joseph Campana.

“We want people to have fun and use their creative spirit,” Balabanlilar said. “The [designs] must sustain a presence in Houston weather … Otherwise, they could be anything. It would be great if they could become public art installations.”

According to Sid Richardson College sophomore Michelle Gachelin, the design competition announcement on Oct. 15 alerted many students to the presence of Little Free Libraries on campus. Gachelin, Sid sophomore Aidan Terlizzi and Will Rice College freshman Meghan Foreman  said they only recently discovered the campus’s Little Free Libraries collection. 

“I found out about [the libraries] last Friday, [Oct.] 22,” Gachelin said. “I got an email about a design competition a few hours before the information session.” 

Terlizzi and Foreman said they also only recently discovered the campus’s Little Free Libraries collection. 

“I have [Little Free Libraries] in my neighborhood back home. I’ve used them a few times,” Foreman said. “I didn’t know we had them on campus until recently, though.” 

At the end of the day, the Little Free Libraries are there to encourage reading and book-sharing across the Rice community, according to Lowman and Balabanlilar. 

“The libraries are just a great phenomenon,” Balabanlilar said. “We want people to read for fun. The more people reading, the better.”

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