Upon first approach, the box might be a bit confounding. It's cute, but what is it? A huge birdhouse? A miniature school stuck on a pole?

In fact, it's a Little Free Library, and it's becoming a popular way to build community and foster a love of reading.

The Dowd family installed one last year in their Arcadia neighborhood — at the corner of Canfield Avenue and Juneau Place — and it immediately created a buzz.

"[Canfield] is a very quiet street where kids play and where block parties are held and it's a really active corner for dog walkers, so it's a little meeting place in our neighborhood," Patty Mackin Dowd said. "As soon as it went up, people were excited to put their cast-off books in there and share with people."

The Arcadia Little Free Library is one of hundreds of Little Free Libraries across the country. They usually take the form of a small box, modeled after a one-room schoolhouse, that's designed to hold books. Organizers can either buy a Little Free Library from the project's website or build one themselves. Then they fill it with books that others can take with them and either return to the library or pass them along to others.

"It's a really great way to share [a book] that you don't necessarily want to get rid of but you want to share with people," said Mackin Dowd, whose husband, Rich Dowd, built their library out of recycled wood.

Rick Brooks, one of the co-founders of Little Free Libraries, said there are only a few rules for using them: generosity and sharing being at the top of the list.

"It is everybody's library," said Brooks, who's based in Hudson, Wis. "[People] feel really good about sharing books that they treasure. With all the bad news around, this is something that people can really feel good about."

He said the Little Free Library project got rolling in the summer of 2010. Since then, hundreds have been built and installed all over the country. There are more than 20 in Baltimore, some formally registered with the Little Free Library's site and some not. Brooks said there could easily be many more libraries in the city that the official group doesn't know about. He said he sees new ones every day.

In order to register a box, someone involved with the Little Free Library sends contact information to the Little Free Library site as well as a photograph of the Little Free Library and a brief explanation as to why the person wanted to establish it.

Once they send that information, stewards receive a kit, including a registration number and a simple sign to put on their library: "Take a book, Return a Book."

Brooks said the original stated goals he and co-founder Todd Bol had were to promote reading for children and literacy for adults and to build libraries around the world.

But it's the idea of bringing people together, he said, that trumps everything.

"We want to promote a sense of community," Brooks said. "That's what it's all about. It's a wonderful thing for readers of course, but it's also good for people who want to belong to a community and give."

Brooks said he wanted not only to build communities of book lovers but also connect with those who don't have access to books.

"We made a deliberate effort to reach out to not only active readers but people who can still discover what you can learn from books," he said.

According to Sarah Sette, a neighbor who registered the Dowd's Little Free Library, a sense of community is alive and well in Arcadia.

"We love our neighborhood," Sette said. "And right here in the heart of our neighborhood we have a little library because we're cool like that."

She said it's an interesting experience to exchange books with neighbors. The Arcadia library recently housed titles including "The Cellist of Sarajevo" by Steven Galloway, "The Screwtape Letters" by C.S. Lewis, and "Milk Glass Moon" by Adriana Trigiani.

"Sometimes you open it and you're surprised to see what's in there," Sette said. "I'll wonder 'Hmm, who's reading that?'"

Sette's daughter Eva Schneiderman, 16, said the Little Free Library was a help to her while she was taking a class called "Literature of the Working Class."

"We were going to read 'The Grapes of Wrath' or '[The Great] Gatsby' and I found a book called 'Working Men,'" Schneiderman said. "We ended up reading that book for class."

Carol Vaeth and her partner, Matt Rinehart, are stewards of a Little Free Library in the 3500 block of Glenmore Ave., near Burdick Park in Northeast Baltimore. Vaeth said the response to the Little Free Library has been mostly positive.

"I was worried that there may be vandalism because of where we lived, but there hasn't been," she said. "I'm very happy about that."

Vaeth said she and Rinehart buy about $8 worth of books every other week to keep the Little Free Library stocked. At first, Vaeth said, she had to consistently restock the library because books were being taken but not returned. One day she decided not to restock and leave the library mostly empty.

"After about a week people started filling it up," she said. "It put the responsibility back on the community so that as stewards we don't have to continually supply it."

Vaeth said their Little Free Library has brought them great joy.

"We have fun doing it," she said. "It's not much of a burden. It's well worth it."

The Village Learning Place, a Baltimore nonprofit library that offers educational programs and other resources, has a Little Free Library in its backyard. Tim Ashdown, an AmeriCorps volunteer who works as a librarian and a leader/coordinator of the adult education program at the Village Learning Place, said Little Free Libraries have a personal element that other libraries may lack.

"When you're picking up a book at a Little Free Library, you know someone else has become a part of that story," he said. "You're getting to connect with someone you don't even know."

Ashdown said Little Free Libraries and other libraries are pushing books back into people's hands in a world dominated by technology and short attention spans.

"People are multitasking all the time," he said. "When you set [everything] down and pick up a book, the book represents a more intentional engagement with the story."

Brooks said that while Little Free Libraries serve primarily as gathering and sharing places and don't provide the services that local libraries do, they have received enthusiastic support and endorsement from public libraries, school libraries and even NPR book reviewer Nancy Pearl.

"We have a bumper sticker," he said, "that says "Libraries Big and Small We Love Them All."


More information

If you're interested in starting a Little Free Library or want to find locations, visit littlefreelibrary.org.