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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Third Story Literacy Project Builds Little Free Libraries In The Miami Valley

Ryan Ireland restocks a Little Free Library on a rainy day in Clifton.
Alan Staiger
Ryan Ireland restocks a Little Free Library on a rainy day in Clifton.

In 2009, a young man in Wisconsin built a replica of a one room school house, put some books inside it and put it in his front yard.  It was a tribute to his mother, a school teacher.  The idea was that anyone could take a book  - or leave a book – and it caught on.  There are 85 thousand of these neighborhood book exchanges now around the world.  They’re known as Little Free Libraries.

Ryan and Amber Ireland became enamored of the idea. Ryan is the communications coordinator of the Greene County Public Library.  He and  and his wife Amber are co-chairs of the Third Story Literacy Project, which has a goal to build 100 little free libraries across the Miami Valley.

“We went and talked to Greene Giving, and they have been a tremendous help to us [in starting the nonprofit],” says Amber. 

Once Third Story Literacy Project was launched, Ryan says that the community response was immediate.

“You start talking about giving away books for free to people. There's a ton of interest out there. Everybody wants to have easy access to books.”

Ryan and Amber build, register, stock and care for Little Free Libraries around the Miami Valley. 

“All you have to do is if you start noticing that you're running low on books you send us an e-mail and somebody you'll be out in 48 hours to restock,” says Ryan. “Reading is such a good thing for a community it's good for people on an individual level. And you're going to learn stuff whether they're fiction or nonfiction. It builds empathy. We can sorely use a lot of empathy in our communities.”

One of the goals of the Third Story Literacy Project is making reading accessible to anyone, anywhere.

“There should never be an area where it is hard to get the books,” says Ryan. “And so we look at what are some of the community parks where people have limited mobility where there is no public transit. Can we put books within arm's reach for those people too. How does this differ from a regular library that loans books for free? Well a Little Free Library is always open. There are no fines or fees if you are to end up taking a book and never returning it. We're none the wiser. We're not going to come find you. In fact, I think it's a great thing that people own books Book ownership is one of the keys to success later in life. If you're exposed to owning the written word between the ages of 0 and 5 you're much likely to do better in school far less likely to be incarcerated later. The list goes on and on and on. I'm happy when people take books and keep them and were happy to keep stock in them.”

I went with Ryan to restock a Little Free Library in Clifton, a tiny village in rural Greene County. It was a really rainy day but Ryan was determined to make sure the little library was filled with a variety of books.

“All right so it looks like we've got some religious literature,” said Ryan, inspecting the library. “We've also got Elvis and Me by Priscilla Presley. Some good fiction nonfiction a lot of paperback novels. So I'm going to try and mix it up a little bit and give them some variety. I got a crate of books over here. Somebody donated a like new condition Robert Ludlum novel, and then I've got a number of kids age readers here. Kids books are always the ones that go the fastest. We have to make sure that we keep those well stocked and always on the bottom shelf with kids books in order to make sure that kids can actually reach them.”

Rare books, including first editions, can show up in a Little Free Library, and sometimes patrons can even read a book before it’s been officially released. 

“We don't tell people where but we do stock number of advanced reader copies. So those are books that have not yet gone to print and cannot be sold,” says Ryan. “And so I get those at conventions or from authors or for review, and when I'm finished with them, they get out in the collection so sometimes you can read a book even before it comes out. We’ve had a number of authors autographed their books donate them to a Little Free Libraries, and then we just put them out there in the world and somebody gets a really nice surprise.”

Culture Couch is made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.