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Imagine my delight when—about two months ago—the “Little Free Library” in the photo above popped up a few blocks down our street, just a block past our son’s bus stop and a block before our favorite playground.

If you’re not fortunate enough to have a little library near you, Little Free Libraries are spiffier, outdoor version of the informal book swap shelf found in many a motel or hostel lobby, apartment laundry room, and coffee shop. They are bookshelves—enclosed from the elements—on posts, stocked with donated books. Anyone can take a book to keep or pass on. Having begun as a local effort in Wisconsin under the name “Habitat for the Humanities,” there are now thousands of little libraries around the globe.

On Saturday, I spoke with the steward of our street’s little library, Craig Alexander, to learn more his vocation as library steward.

“It’s been fun,” he said—so fun, in fact, that he checks the library at least thrice daily: when he takes his dog for an early walk, when he leaves for work, and when he returns in the evening. “I want good books, not just books,” in the library, he noted, which means both supplementing others’ donations and culling out books that sit on the shelves. He returns many of the culled books to the library after a few weeks in hopes of their finding a reader during a second pass through the library.

Mr. Alexander’s signature is the action figures that populate—or, more accurately, transit through—the little library. He started with the ones still at home from the childhood of his son, now a college student. He quickly went through those and now stocks up on action figures from a local second-hand store: “Kids come to see the new action figures,” he said, noting that “dinosaurs go fast.”

Drawing kids and adults is part of being the library’s steward—and also educating people about the library. During the library’s first weeks, Mr. Alexander would overhear parents telling their children that they couldn’t take a book because they didn’t have one to leave—and he would dash out to assure people that they could take a book without leaving one.

Being steward also lets one attempt to shape the tastes of at least few local readers: Mr. Alexander ensures there are always a couple books of poetry on offer. He’s still hoping that someone will pick up a book of Maryland poet Linda Pastan’s poems, but he did have the satisfaction of a neighbor reporting picking up another book of poems and reading poetry for the first time in years.

Why have Little Free Libraries been an international success—a small project in Wisconsin that turned out to be scalable when so many local successes are not?

Based on his experience, Mr. Alexander offered two observations: first, “the cost of a book is low, so people think it’s okay to pass it around and share it”; and, second, with brick-and-mortar bookstores disappearing, “it’s hard to get books.” Even ordering a book online requires knowing what book you want and searching for it, rather than chancing across an intriguing book on bookstore shelf. These little free libraries—which people pass in the course of their day—offer a choice of books without a drive to a mall bookstore.

Although the Little Free Libraries have been built around the world, each little library success is an instance of “philanthrolocalism,” which brings together a local community of donors and beneficiaries (with a high overlap between book donors and beneficiaries who take books home!) and a local library steward. It’s a global success achieved by thousands of small-scale efforts in local communities and neighborhoods.

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