March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Pop-Up Libraries Blossom in Philadelphia and Beyond

The books come by the hundreds almost daily. Boxes dropped off from yoga clubs, suburban book drives, and schools to be handed out at the Mighty Writers Street Libraries—pop-up libraries recently launched in Philadelphia to offer books to the city’s students and parents who watch as their access to titles diminish.

“Over time we’ve been hearing of school libraries closing and school librarians laid off,” says Tim Whitaker, the founder and executive director of the non-profit Mighty Writers, an after-school writing and tutoring center in Philadelphia, and the former editor of the Philadelphia Weekly. “But after we read a story that Central High School and Masterman, two premiere schools in the city, had lost their library, that was a jolt to see what we could do help things out.”

Helping out has meant watching 13 to 15 boxes of books a day get pored over by the 7- to 17-year-old students—and disappear within a couple of hours. While Whitaker is emphatic that the three pop-up libraries can in no way replace a school library, he feels just as emphatic that getting books in the hands of children is an absolute must.

“This gets kids books in front of them and then they build their own library at home,” he says.

As public and school libraries continue to wrestle with budget cuts, reducing staff, shrinking hours, and sometimes even closing branches and outposts in schools, the public has started to react. While budgets aren’t going up, interest in getting books into the hands of adults and children has. The result? A movement to build libraries independent of the systems and schools that have long housed them.

Call them Little Free Libraries, Pop-up Libraries, or Street Libraries, these tiny stand-alone centers—some no bigger than a shoe box—are giving communities a way to help supplement what they feel they’re losing: books.

Take Izzy Mumm. The 17-year-old senior at Steamboat Springs High School in Steamboat Springs, CO, spent last summer volunteering at her local library, Bud Werner Memorial Library. Her memory of the branch is intertwined with summer larks.

“We’d swim in the river, and then go to the library to check out books,” she says.

A month ago, Mumm decided to bring books closer to her neighborhood (Bud Werner is about four miles away). So she asked her father, Ed, to build a small lending library she could put in the community. With an old trunk and half of a 50-gallon oil tank, her Little Free Library launched in mid-September, about two blocks from Soda Creek Elementary School in Steamboat Springs.

Titles from Ella Enchanted to A Prayer for Owen Meany have all appeared in the box. Mumm keeps track as the self-appointed steward. Checking weekly, Mumm makes sure the box doesn’t need refilling. Although she imagines her pop-up library as a lending library—hoping people take one and then leave another—she is also prepared to restock from donated titles and from her own home library as well.

“”We have so many books at home, we can refill it,” she says.

Pop-up libraries have grown so popular that The Architectural League of New York jointly-led a design competition with PEN World Voices Festival this year encouraging ten designers and architects to build community lending libraries as well.

They dotted Manhattan with small pop-up libraries offering readers a chance to have some modern architectural mixed in with their reading materials. And for those inspired by the projects, designs are available online for any to use for to build their own Little Free Library.

Mighty Writers uses a simpler design—a table outside one of their three centers. And unlike a lending library, the group just hopes children (and adults) will feel comfortable taking home a title or three, and hopes to keep the books coming indefinitely. As long as there are tomes, families should keep coming and taking them home, Whitaker says.

“We encourage them to take a book at one of our centers,” he adds. “They let their siblings read it, and come back and tell us about their home libraries. They’re lining up the books, putting them in alphabetical order, by author, by title. They’re really proud of the books they’re getting.”

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library JournalStronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.