In true Baltimore fashion, each building is unique: funded, constructed, installed, and stocked in its own way.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in our first newspaper edition, March 12, 2021.
You’ve probably come across a Little Free Library in your travels, mounted like an oversized mailbox on a pole at some random corner, its clear front door revealing a tumble of volumes inside. “Take a book, leave a book” is its communal slogan, kindly offering you a good read, no strings attached.
You may not have noticed, but there has been something of a building boom of these diminutive structures across the peninsula over the past year. Fueled by the pandemic and our community’s evident altruism, these individual initiatives by residents are inspired by the mission of the decade-old Little Free Library phenomenon to “build community, inspire readers, and expand book access for all.”
According to the official Little Free Library website, Baltimore hosts about 60 libraries, with just two on the South Baltimore peninsula. But a recent survey conducted by the Peninsula Post reveals there are actually nine libraries here, with a tenth slated to open soon. At least four of these were installed after the start of the pandemic.
In true Baltimore fashion, each building is unique: funded, constructed, installed, and stocked in its own way. Few are affiliated with the Little Free Library organization or used the group’s construction kits.
Pandemic stay-at-home restrictions last spring spurred peninsula-native Lauren Marks of E. Ostend St. to act on her fascination with the little libraries. With the help of her husband Charlie Totten, they built one from scratch with a green roof of seasonal plants that opened in April on the southwest corner of Patapsco St.
Lauren initially stocked the library’s shelf with her own books, but now the community keeps it full. “I don’t really know where they come from, but there are always new ones,” Lauren reports.
Her library has had a steady stream of visitors, from families with children to those experiencing homelessness. Lauren has been pleased to hear the same kind of excitement in the voices of kids exploring her library that she remembers feeling as a child leaving the Light Street branch of the Enoch Pratt Library with an armload of books.
Another new little library that opened in November in Locust Point has also been getting a lot of use, according to Hap Duffey of Hull St. “Within 15 minutes of my mounting it around Thanksgiving, people were opening the door to see what’s there. There’s probably a complete turnover of titles every two weeks.”
Hap and his wife Cheryl initiated this library last summer after seeing that another one near their house was consistently full over the years. More little libraries were clearly needed, they thought, so they applied for a community grant from the Locust Point Civic Association and purchased a premade structure online. The library now stands in front of the Locust Point Recreation Center (1627 E. Fort Ave.) in Latrobe Park.
Rich Schechinger of Riverside Ave. had never heard of Little Free Libraries two years ago, but he has now built one from scratch with his neighbors. This library opened in Henry Street Park (1240 Henry St.) last summer and is getting steady traffic, Rich reports.
He first heard of little libraries from his fellow Riverside Ave. resident Cathy Strodel in 2019 as a possible project for the Federal Hill South Neighborhood Association, which Rich leads as president. When his neighbor Bridget Morris also mentioned them last year, he knew it was time to act.
Planning began in earnest with several other neighbors involved in Henry Street Park. A design for a large library with plants on the roof was settled on. With funds from the neighborhood association, Rich started construction in April and the library opened in June.
A different group effort, this one by middle-school students, led to the little library on the west side of Riverside Park just inside the entrance at E. Heath and Johnson streets. Students at nearby Thomas Johnson Elementary Middle School took on every aspect of the project, from planning to fundraising, as part of their community service project for the National Junior Honor Society. It opened in June 2019.
“It’s been great to see parents and the community get invested in this project,” says Katie Scotti, the Thomas Johnson teacher who supervises the honor society. Community members installed the library, painted the school’s lion mascot on it, and have repaired occasional vandalism.
Another little library a few blocks away that opened in 2017 continues to see regular use with a new public service added recently by passersby. Matt Hall maintains this library on the 100 block of E. Randall that he inherited when neighbors left the neighborhood.
Matt noted an uptick of use during the pandemic with libraries closed and kids at home 24/7. “Now sometimes people put in pantry items too, not a lot, but they get taken. So the library serves that purpose too.”
That dual use – reading and feeding – is being designed into the peninsula’s newest library, set to open this spring at Solo Gibbs Park in Sharp-Leadenhall. Crystal Thomas of Otterbein spearheaded this library with the help of friends, neighbors, and Lin Gurney of the SHARPkids after-school program sponsored by Grace City Church.
Crystal launched the project during last summer’s pandemic-induced downtime. Inspired by one in Canton Square, she raised the funds with a GoFundMe campaign and purchased an unpainted library on Etsy. The SHARPkids picked the color scheme and painted the structure.
“Our library is pretty large. One shelf will be for books, the other for nonperishable goods,” Crystal explains. “We decided to call it the Baltimore Community Cabinet. It’s ready to go. We’re just waiting for good weather to get it in the ground.”
Four additional peninsula libraries discovered in our survey can be found at these locations:
- Locust Point at the southwest corner of E. Clement and Hull streets
- McHenry Row at the northwest corner of Porter and Ross streets
- West side of Stack St. near E. Fort Ave.
- Northwest corner of E. Randall St. and Battery Ave. across from Riverside Park
– Steve Cole