New York City, NY

‘Read in Color’ at these three NYC Little Free Libraries

Asha Sridhar

The fourth one is coming to Brooklyn on September 30

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The 'Read in Color' Little Free Library at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Gardens in Staten Island.(Photo/Asha Sridhar)

NEW YORK — On a quiet summer afternoon, the earthy brown Little Free Library at the Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson Community Garden in Queens (pictured below) was basking in the shade of linden trees, almost melding in with its leafy surroundings. On the side of this wooden book case was an indication of what it was cultivating — diversity in literature and a chance for everyone to see themselves represented between the pages of a book.

This is one of the three ‘Read in Color’ libraries established in New York City this year by the Wisconsin-based nonprofit, Little Free Library.

The first was launched on Juneteenth at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Gardens in Staten Island and soon another one was installed at the Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science in the Bronx in collaboration with the New York City Football Club. Fidelity Triangle in Brooklyn will be next on September 30 and Manhattan will be fifth in line.

What is Little Free Library?

Little Free Library, which popularized the idea of setting up community-based libraries, has its presence in all seven continents, including Antarctica. The idea is simple: Take a book and leave one in its place.

Why ‘Read in Color’?

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, they felt they had to act.“The Little Free Library nonprofit organization is based in Hudson, Wisconsin, which is just a short distance from the Twin Cities metro area. A lot of our staff live in Minneapolis, in St. Paul. When George Floyd was killed, that struck a chord. That was really close to home. We began talking about how we could do more as a small nonprofit organization to help create change,” said Margret Aldrich, director of communications, Little Free Library.

They launched a ‘Read in Color’ library in Minneapolis in October 2020 and soon expanded to other cities.

A ‘Read in Color’ library is similar to any other Little Free Library, except it is stocked with diverse reads. The organization works with its Diverse Books Advisory Group comprising people such as Roxane Gay and Debbie Reese, among others, to curate the ‘Read in Color’ recommended reading lists. They also work with publishers and local partner organizations and donate the physical set-up as well as diverse books to stock these shelves.

You can now find these libraries in Tulsa, Detroit, Boston and Washington D.C. among other cities. By the end of 2021, they will be in Atlanta and Phoenix.

Now in NYC

In New York City, Heather Butts, co-founder, H.E.A.L.T.H for Youths and Little Free Library steward is the thread that ties together the various ‘Read in Color’ sites. Having partnered with Little Free Library for some time now, she was instrumental in bringing local partners on board to set up a ‘Read in Color’ library in each borough.

On the importance of having access to books, especially diverse ones, she said we often forget that there are people whose families don't have books.

“I was at an event several years ago and it was in an underserved neighborhood. I challenged students to read one book by the time I came back the next week, and one little boy raised his hand and said, very sort of quietly, ‘What if you don't have any books to read?’ I felt like I wanted the floor to swallow me up, because I should have been the one to realize that not everybody would have books. It’s what I do. I just got too excited about the reading challenge, that I forgot for a minute, that a lot of young people don't have books. They don't have books in their households,” she recalled.

I was at an event several years ago and it was in an underserved neighborhood. I challenged students to read one book by the time I came back the next week, and one little boy raised his hand and said, very sort of quietly, ‘What if you don't have any books to read?’

Not only do these libraries give children the books they need, they also allow young people to journey wherever their imagination can take them, she noted. “Having a book of your own allows you to keep that and own it.”

Jon Crow, engagement coordinator with New York Restoration Project, an organization that cares for the Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson Community Garden, said the library is also another way to activate community gardens. Many of these gardens, he pointed out, have historically been located in communities of color because these communities lacked green spaces and were ignored back in the day.

“It's just wonderful to see initiatives like this, that fit so neatly with community gardens and the history of gardens, and what those communities have been through,” he said.

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The 'Read in Color' Little Free Library at the Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson Community Garden in Queens.(Photo/Asha Sridhar)
It's just wonderful to see initiatives like this, that fit so neatly with community gardens and the history of gardens, and what those communities have been through.

And response from the community has been “phenomenal” said Butts. “The first Little Free Library we did at Snug Harbor — I get emails and text messages and pictures from people all the time, telling me, ‘Oh, I just stopped by the Little Free Library and I put a book in and it's so exciting’.”

One such happy resident from Staten Island is Jazmin Rivera whose daughters loved reading the picture book, ‘Green Green: A Community Garden Story’. “I am raising bi-racial girls on Staten Island — a place that has a history of racism and erasure. I'm a Black woman and I belong here, and my little brown girls deserve to see themselves represented in books, in movies, in the White house — everywhere that people are, they deserve to see their potential. The new ‘Read in Color’ Little Free Library at Snug does just that. It shows my girls the possibilities for Black and Brown folks on this island and anywhere else. It's also extra special because we're able to read on the beautiful grounds of Snug,” she said in an email, adding, “The selection of books also highlights land ownership and autonomy for folks of color, which is another aspect of history that is often erased. Black and indigenous folks have been communing with this land forever. These books show that.”

Growing into more than just a library

Susannah Abbate, director of education & engagement, Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden said that the ‘Read in Color’ library is a really important part of making sure that Snug Harbor as a site is empowering youngsters to really envision a future that includes them.

In addition to featuring books by diverse authors, they are also expanding its scope by tying it with their farm newsletter. “For our farm newsletter every week, we feature a book that's related to people of color and farming and food systems. That is one way that we've been building out the adult portion,” she said. They then make that book available at the library.

For our farm newsletter every week, we feature a book that's related to people of color and farming and food systems. That is one way that we've been building out the adult portion.

How do they keep the shelves diverse?

However, given the dynamic nature of Little Free Libraries, how do they ensure the selection remains diverse and inclusive? When people start taking books and leaving books in its place, the library develops a character of its own.

“In fact, the library that we did with New York Restoration Project…I went back the next day and there were already new books in there and there were Harry Potter books. (smiles),” said Butts, adding, “I think that that's the charm and the beauty of Little Free Libraries. People will take care of them and then make it their own.”

Though not every book in these ‘Read in Color’ libraries might have a character that is Muslim or African American, she said they will in themselves have a level of diversity that will make them grow over time. “That's really the magic of it.”

Abbate called the library a “really robust point of social exchange”.

How can you start your own ‘Read in Color’ library?

If you want to establish a ‘Read in Color’ library in your city there are plenty of resources.

“If you're not in one of the cities that we are rolling out the program this year, you can contact us to let us know that your city is interested. We are continuing this program into 2022 and 2023 and hopefully beyond,” said Aldrich.

She said if you wanted to personally start a ‘Read in Color’ library or wanted to convert your Little Free Library to support the ‘Read in Color’ program, there are downloadable resources and also a launch pack that people can purchase on the website.

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I am a Jersey City-based writer and editor interested in books, culture, lifestyle and stories that are off the beaten path.

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