Although I’m late to have noticed it, the Atlantic recently re-ran a piece from early 2015 in which they highlighted the absurd case of local municipalities fining or prosecuting small community bookshares. Often called “Little Free Libraries,” these staples of small-town Americana are hardly more than a public shelf where people can leave old books for someone else’s enjoyment or take some for themselves. As the Atlantic piece points out, these often help bring neighbors together and foster community spirit.
But some residents have apparently had enough. The L.A. Times reported (again, this is in 2015) that Little Free Libraries in several cities have come under criticism from town councils, who deemed them to run afoul of zoning laws and classified them as “illegal detached structures.” Operators of the libraries faced fines of up to $500 and were forced to file for the proper permits.
It would be easy in these cases to immediately blame the bureaucratic busybodies who bring the punitive powers of the regulatory apparatus to bear on innocent citizens. But it’s worth noting that the bureaucrats were usually responding to complaints from other residents. In Los Angeles, a man who hosts a Little Free Library on his yard was left an anonymous note from “a neighbor who hates you,” demanding he “take it down or the city will.”
Where does such covert venom come from? What drives one person to strike out with such vehemence against a neighbor? Who knows. And more to the point, who’s surprised? People find it hard to get along, and neighborliness would not in itself be any great virtue if neighborly antagonism were not the prior and more natural disposition of man.
Partisans of localism, when extolling the many virtues of small-scale and close-knit community life, also need to keep in mind the many unique opportunities it provides for abuse. The hatred leveled at the Little Library owner in L.A. probably has its roots in some long-since-forgotten sleight or unintentional offense, now being punished by proxy through the strong arm of the state. Since communal life on the small-scale is inherently interconnected, the lines between political and personal tend to blur more easily than they might in other settings.
Connor Freidersdorf, in his Atlantic piece, laments the crackdown on the bookshares as an assault on the basic values that make up American civic society. He wistfully quotes de Tocqueville and rhapsodizes about the “venerable tradition” of volunteerism and public-spiritedness in American small towns. I wonder if we shouldn’t rather expect precisely these sort of petty antics in our villages and neighborhoods, precisely because we ask that residents become so involved in each other’s lives in order to live there? That’s not to excuse the “crackdown” on the lending libraries—which is obviously preposterous—but it is to consider once more the nature of localism and community life.
The good comes with the bad. Let’s hope these Little Free Libraries stay open in as many places as possible; but let’s not kid ourselves about the inevitability of this sort of silliness, either.