Little Free Libraries on campus encourage ‘fun’ reading, lifetime learning habits

One of the three new Little Free Libraries is outside Valhalla

A trio of new Little Free Libraries have been constructed in the heart of the Rice University campus and they’re already bursting with books to read.

The small libraries — imagine a birdhouse for books — are typically found in residential neighborhoods, and their tiny doors are always open to the public.

One of the three new Little Free Libraries is outside Valhalla. (Photos by Katharine Shilcutt)

Patrons of the Little Free Libraries, the world’s largest book-sharing movement, use the boxes as exchanges: borrowing a novel or two while also leaving behind a biography or short-story collection for the next reader who comes along. Children’s books are also popular titles to take and leave.

And right now, as most standard libraries remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, these Little Free Libraries are more useful than ever.

Thanks to a joint effort between the Faculty Fellows of the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), Fondren Library and Facilities, Engineering and Planning (FE&P), Rice received its own trio of tiny libraries right in the nick of time.

“The coronavirus came just as they were supposed to get installed,” said Lisa Balabanlilar, associate professor of history and current Faculty Fellows chair with the CTE. The Faculty Fellows used part of their annual budget to fund the project — something she figured would be put on the back burner during the pandemic.

A month later, though, FE&P surprised them by installing the bright red-trimmed boxes with sloping, mid-mod roofs across campus. One stands in the Graduate Commons outside Valhalla; another is in the hammock courtyard next to Fondren Library; the third sits in the shade of a large oak tree in the Central Quad near Brochstein Pavilion.

“I ran up to campus the next day to see them, and somebody had already put books in them,” Balabanlilar said.

The project was inspired, Balabanlilar said, by discussions among the CTE Faculty Fellows about finding new ways to develop lifetime learning habits among Rice students — learning habits that aren’t classroom-driven.

Over the years, many students in her classes have admitted to Balabanlilar they rarely read books for fun after entering college. Frequently, she said, students hadn’t read a single novel since arriving at Rice.

This Little Free Library is in the hammock grove outside Fondren.
This Little Free Library is in the hammock grove outside Fondren.

“I've always been fascinated by this international movement for tiny free libraries,” she said. “And so I thought, we have to put popular reading, fun reading in front of them and make it a part of the Rice culture.”

Just weeks after their installation, the boxes were already bursting with both popular and fun titles, including everything from Dean Koontz and John Saul page-turners to “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,” “American Psycho,” a compendium of Harlan Ellison short stories and a near-complete set of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” titles.

This is only the beginning for these Little Free Libraries. Balabanlilar is partnering with Fondren Library and the School of Architecture on projects and programming around the libraries beginning this fall.

“Fondren Library staff members are eager to work with the CTE Fellows on promoting reading on campus, and are excited to see the tiny free libraries added to the campus,” said Sara Lowman, vice provost and university librarian.

“We're looking forward to promoting reading on campus in the fall through both Fondren Library’s leisure reading collections and the books found in the tiny free libraries,” Lowman said. “The tiny free libraries will provide a great place for everyone on campus to share and donate books after they're finished reading them, and hopefully provide even more discussion and conversation around reading.”

And this, Balabanlilar said, is at the heart of the Little Free Library project.

“We need to have more conversations about learning," she said.