Downtown to introduce Little Free Libraries after book swap event

Ernie R. (Courtney Pedroza/DD)
Downtown Phoenix Ambassador Ernie Rodriguez stands by one of his handmade Little Free Libraries. Downtown community members can take a book from the library and replace it with another book. (Courtney Pedroza/DD)

Downtown will be home to five Little Free Libraries after a book swap in Civic Space Park on Saturday marking the program’s official launch.

Little Free Library is a national program, but the five libraries will be some of the first in downtown Phoenix. The libraries are usually placed in areas of high traffic such as parks or in front of businesses or event spaces.

The concept is simple: You take a book out of the library or off its shelf and leave one behind in its place. The libraries are home to everything from children’s picture books to old romance novels and spy thrillers.

“We really wanted to encourage people to get outside, use your public spaces, be a part of the public realm,” said Samantha Jackson, community services director for the Downtown Phoenix Partnership. “I want downtown to feel like a community and I want it to feel like this is this special thing that happens in our neighborhood.”

The libraries resemble birdhouses or mailboxes in size and structure and are typically colorful and decorative. They can hold anywhere from about a dozen to more than 50 books. Some are placed permanently in an area while others have wheels, allowing them to be pushed around like carts.

The five libraries were all built by Downtown Phoenix Ambassador Ernie Rodriguez. He has been with the ambassadors for more than 13 years and said that while meeting and helping people is his favorite part of the position, he also enjoys the various odd jobs he ends up taking on.

“We just kind of hope that it’s something different, unique to downtown that is nowhere else in Phoenix, or for that matter in the metro cities like Tempe or Glendale,” Rodriguez said. “I think we try to provide a little something for everybody.”

Some of the libraries only took a couple days to build, but others took a few weeks, depending on the level of detail, Rodriguez said. Some are fairly simple and just resemble cabinets, while others have more complicated structures. Rodriguez built one library to look like a treehouse, complete with a balcony bookshelf to store even more books. He also painted the treehouse to look like the Partridge Family bus. Another library is covered in chalkboard paint that invites people to add their own messages.

Two of the little libraries are already in place at Heritage Square and the Phoenix Public Market. These are both on wheels, allowing them to be brought inside at night or, in the case of the Phoenix Public Market library, when events like the farmer’s market aren’t going on.

The library that will be placed in Civic Space Park will be showcased at Saturday’s book swap. The remaining two have yet to find a definite home, but Jackson said she’s hoping they can be placed at the Arizona Center and at the Downtown Info Center, where the ambassadors are based out of.

At the book swap, hosted by Co-op Phoenix, people of all ages can trade a book of their own (or two, or 10) for a book someone else brought. Book donations are also welcome.

“It feels good to give something,” Co-op Phoenix co-founder Kelsey Wong said. “I love that feeling. It’s a much better feeling, even, than receiving.”

The idea for the event came after Co-op Phoenix hosted a few clothing swaps. The events were great for building community and encouraging people to interact with each other, so Wong asked herself what else would preserve that energy.

“I feel like the event market is pretty saturated,” Wong said. “There’s a lot of entertainment these days, but you’re not contributing to it necessarily, you aren’t fueling the event. It’s not just the things that you bring, it’s the energy you bring to the event itself. That’s what makes ours different.”

She said the swapping events are about more than just the physical product, whether it’s clothes or books. They’re also geared toward showing people that Phoenix is a place with “real community.”

The leftover books from the swap event will go to the Friends of the Phoenix Public Library, a nonprofit organization that holds regular book sales across the Valley to raise money for the Phoenix public libraries, including downtown’s Burton Barr Central Library.

In exchange, the Little Free Libraries will have access to the Friends of the Phoenix Public Library warehouse, which holds about 200,000 books at any given time. This will prevent the little libraries’ content from getting old or losing variety, a concern Jackson said many expressed.

Another worry was that people might take books without leaving behind a different one in its place. The partnership with the Friends of the Phoenix Public Library will solve this problem, too, as well as bring attention back to so-called “21st century libraries” that offer technology and meeting spaces alongside books and other traditional materials.

“Libraries now, in response to this digital age, have turned into community centers,” said Alexis Boyle, community programs coordinator for the Friends of the Phoenix Public Library.

People at the book swap and using the Little Free Libraries are encouraged to leave notes in the books they donate or swap telling people what they thought of the book or why they’re giving it.

“One of our goals is to encourage people to … share that message with somebody so that you use it as a way to connect people,” Jackson said. “You might not ever meet that person, but if … there was a way to build that human connection, I just think we lose it too much.”

The book swap will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday in Civic Space Park. The event is free with a suggested $5 donation. There will also be live music, food, coffee and a pop-up park.

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