Northfield’s Little Free Libraries Are Abundant, and Community-Supported

Editor’s note: This is the seventh story in our ongoing series that immerses readers in the community-building power of Little Free Libraries. Other installments have featured the LFL “Read in Color” initiative as well as libraries in the RondoMacalester-Groveland and North End neighborhoods in St. Paul and Linden Hills in Minneapolis.

Take a book, share a book: That’s the philosophy behind Little Free Library, a nonprofit organization now based in St. Paul that Wisconsinite Todd Bol founded in 2010. Today, more than five years after Bol’s passing, over 160,000 book boxes can be found across the globe.

With a population of 20,007, two nationally known private liberal arts colleges (Carleton and St. Olaf), each with a fine academic library, a popular downtown bookstore and a robust 1910 Carnegie public library, Northfield supports approximately 48 Little Free Libraries. 

Or make that 47 Little Free Libraries, since one on the city’s west side was duct-taped shut with a sign that warned users not to open the box due to an active hornet’s nest.

A Well-Read City

In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shifted normal functions and altered many well-laid plans, the Rotary Club of Northfield focused its efforts on building and stocking Little Free Libraries. They built and installed eight new little libraries in low- or moderate-income neighborhoods throughout Northfield.

This box, painted to match the owner’s front door, is on Northfield’s west side.

“We are targeting those areas because of the gap in reading scores between higher-income students and lower-income students,” said Laura Turek, then the Healthy Community Initiative (HCI) coordinator. “We know access to books is a major piece of literacy skill development. Literacy-rich environments build strong readers.”

The Rotarians also took inventory of the boxes and restocked them to ensure that they included books for children and youth.

“We felt it was important to provide children’s reading material while the schools and library were closed,” said Laurie Williams, a Rotarian who also served on the reading team for Northfield Promise, an organization dedicated to kids and teens reaching their full potential. “We want to make sure all children have access to quality, appropriate books.”

Topped by a Viking-inspired symbol, this box stands across the street from the Ole Store eatery on Northfield’s west side.

Three of the new local Little Free Libraries were built by the Cannon Valley Makers, a St. Olaf-affiliated community space in neighboring Dundas. Others were constructed by a grandfather and grandson, a local Girl Scout troop, a retired library employee and a middle school industrial arts class. The Little Free Library organization has an online shop that sells the book boxes and stands, with prices ranging from $180 to $420 for the library alone.

Literacy-Related Activities

On a hot and muggy summer day, a mother, two daughters and a large dog were standing in front of a Little Free Library located one block from Northfield’s City Hall. They were taking a break from their walk to pore through the stack of free books, many of which were children’s titles.

Little Free Library users Amanda Wigley (right) and her daughters, Kaya and Ella Wigley, picked out their reading selections during a neighborhood walk.

Amanda Wigley and daughters Kaya, 9, and Ella, 3, said they absolutely love Northfield’s Little Free Libraries. Ella, who can’t read yet, said her mother eventually picked out Disney’s Aladdin. Kaya, who is already reading at a seventh-grade level, was taking her time to decide on which book she wanted to borrow.

“You never know what you’re going to find when you open the Little Library window,” said Amanda, who is originally from New Jersey. The Wigleys have lived in Northfield three years and now live on the east side of town, not far from where her husband grew up.

She said her family likes to swap out books from different boxes around town. “I’d so much rather see the girls have a book in their hands than a device.”

So far this summer, the girls’ favorite books have included one in the Magic Tree House series and another book about Egypt that Ella became obsessed with, her mother explained. “We were also pleased that a Little Free Library was located outside the Allina Clinic. That made waiting for a medical appointment much more bearable.”

Always Wanted One

Doris Welke said she’s wanted to have her own Little Free Library for years. “I think my love of books, the idea of availability to anyone and how cute these little libraries were made me want one,” said Welke in an email. When her partner, Richard DeBeau, heard that, “he realized it would make a wonderful birthday gift to me.”

Doris Welke designed the book box to match their mid-century modern home that her partner, Richard DeBeau, built. 

Welke designed their Little Free Library, and Richard built it with some modifications and mounted it on a sturdy post. “We have had a few water issues,” she said, “but we try to keep it stocked with a variety of reading materials and work on leak repairs. We have adult fiction and non-fiction, a large number of children’s books and some for young adults as well.”

Welke tries to keep 12 to 18 books in the box at one time, depending on size. She also includes household magazines, which deal mainly with photography or motorcycles.

People adhere to the Little Free Library slogan: Take a book. Leave a book. “I don’t very often see the people who stop by, but I have talked to moms with little ones and I have had people who identify our home using the library as a reference point,” Welke said.

Homeowners in a quiet neighborhood in the southeastern part of town, Gretchen and Jim Gillis mounted a Little Free Library in their front yard in 2022. Their wooden box is painted the same red as their house. Gretchen, a former elementary school teacher, said she originally wanted to stock her box only with children’s books. “I had so many books for students aged kindergarten to second grade I wanted to share,” she said.

Since their Little Free Library was the only one on Peterson Drive, Gillis said they’ve recently added books for adults to enjoy as well. “Our neighborhood doesn’t have as many children living nearby as we used to.”

See for Yourself!

Anyone visiting Northfield during the Defeat of Jesse James Days festival from September 6-10 should reserve time to walk, bike or drive around town to see some of the more whimsical Little Free Libraries, including any of those pictured here.

Neighborhoods by the two college campuses — Carleton east of Highway 3, which divides this vibrant town, and St. Olaf on the west side — are especially good hunting grounds for book boxes. Happy reading! 

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted

Pamela Thompson

About Pamela Thompson

Pronouns: she/her

Pamela is a Vassar College graduate with a masters in Journalism from the University of Kansas-Lawrence. She has been a professional writer for 25+ years after working in politics in Washington, D.C. She is currently the editor of the Northfield News in Northfield, Minnesota.