By Zenith Wolfe
Take a book, leave a book is a new trend sweeping across Kitchissippi.
Little library boxes have been cropping up outside Ottawa homes and public buildings over the last few years. These small wood boxes contain donated books that can be taken home for free by local residents.
In September 2019, the St. Stephens Presbyterian Church was celebrating its 75th anniversary. Reverend Meg Patterson decided, after consultation with church members, to set up a little library for the occasion.
Adult congregation members cut wood for the church’s Youth Group, who built the box. Sunday school students then painted it. Patterson said the tangible nature of the project made youth feel like they were part of the community.
The library box, in turn, helped young readers get books during the pandemic. When public libraries and bookstores closed to meet health regulations, the church’s little library stayed open. Patterson said this was – and continues to be – especially helpful to readers who can’t afford books or consistent library trips.
“Most of the people here are quite affluent, but you don’t have to go very far to find people who maybe are not as well off. They’re not as easily able to just go to Chapters to buy a book,” she said.
For others, including Civic Hospital area resident Kathy Kennedy, the book boxes are an opportunity to connect with neighbours and improve the visual flair of local communities.
Kennedy regularly frequents the church’s box, and two others within a 10-minute walk. She also owns the Books Beneath the Beech box, installed at 295 Bayswater Ave. She said the library boxes act as conversation starters.
“During the pandemic I would be out gardening in the front and people would stop to chat,” Kennedy said. “They would tell me how much they appreciate (the box), to the point where people would be asking ‘Well, what kind of books do you like?’”
Her library box is popular, often to the point of overflowing. She stores books in her home when the box is full, restocking it again when it dwindles.
Patterson said the church’s box also tends to overflow, but the library manages itself. She said community members interrupt their walks or drives to take or remove books as necessary.
“I’ve really been amazed at how many people come by. At any given time, that box goes from being maybe half empty to overflowing. The books are constantly changing without any work on our part,” Patterson said.
Little libraries are only getting more popular with time. Some book boxes, like Patterson’s and Kennedy’s, are registered with the Little Free Library association. They paid around $100 to decorate their book boxes with plaques and add them to the organization’s official online map, which lists over 10 boxes in the area covered by Kitchissippi Times.
But Westboro resident and avid reader Tomer Noyhouzer said many boxes are not registered, like the one on his front lawn. He has used Google Maps to log over 50 boxes in that same area based on years of walking around Ottawa.
Through these boxes, Noyhouzer has discovered fantasy author Marie Phillips and crime novelist Jo Nesbo. He also found a sequel to a Terry Pratchett book he never knew about. He said the little libraries don’t replace traditional libraries, but they’re good for finding hidden gems.
“You walk around, you see the little libraries and you say ‘Oh, you never know, maybe I’ll find something that I’ll like,’” he said. “It’s kind of a treasure hunt.”
Patterson emphasized that as communities become “increasingly car dependent,” people become less likely to know their neighbours. Little libraries and the search for books, she said, provide an important point of connection for these areas.
“You might bump into somebody at the Little Free Library and get the chance to say hello or pet their dog,” she said. “I think we need more of that kind of opportunity for connection in our neighbourhood.”