Street Libraries: Books on the Footpath

Books are powerful. The right book at the right time can be a bundle of magic, an impetuous for change, an eye-opening view shifter, or a glorious feast for the imagination. Reading cultivates more than literacy; books grow community, connection and knowledge. They’re the best.

Imagine the front gardens of your street adorned with miniature libraries, full of books to be shared? Imagine your children having easy and local access to free books, just outside your front gate? Imagine forging friendships through sharing books? Imagine taking on the role of street librarian? Glasses, check. Tweed skirt/pants, check. Stern face, check. Faint bookish aroma, check.

This is the vision of Street Library Australia (except for the librarian’s dress code bit). A street library is a small home for books, usually planted in a front garden, or a publicly accessible spot. According to Street Library CEO and founder Nick Lowe, they’re a window into the mind of a community. “Books come and go; no-one needs to check them in or out. People can simply reach in and take what interests them; when they are done, they can return them to the Street Library network, or pass them on to friends.”

Street Libraries are a symbol of trust and hope – a tiny vestibule of literary happiness.”

The Street Library seed was sown in November 2015 when Nic planted a street library in his front yard in Newtown, Sydney. Soon he and a team of keen volunteers had built and distributed 10 libraries around Sydney. The concept has grown rapidly since then, and now there’s around 150 libraries around Australia – from Horne Island in the Torres Strait, to Kalgoorlie in the west, Hobart in the south, and a heap of libraries in Sydney and Melbourne. Check out the Street Library map to find one near you.

Anyone can make and install a street library in their front garden. The team have a detailed downloadable plan available on their website and heaps of guidance. Creativity is encouraged, and some of the resulting libraries are spectacular. Waterproofing and safety are obviously pretty important, but the rest is up to you! Or, if you need more guidance, the Street Library team also offer one day workshops to help you build your own.

I asked Nic (who also founded the very awesome car sharing biz GoGet – overachiever or what?) a few questions about his street library experiences:

What’s the best book you’ve discovered in a street library?
The Life of Pi

And the most bizzare?
A book about liver cleansing for cats

What’s the wackiest/most creative street library you’ve come across?
The Coolabah tree library in Melbourne – It’s made from an old dolls house.

What’s currently in your street library?
Lots of books. 50 Shades of Grey. A book about How Turtles mate.

What’s your dream for Street Library Australia?
5,000 Street Libraries in Australia by 2020

What’s your all-time favourite book?
The Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison (also Author of Soylent Green)

So, if you’re looking for a creative project over Christmas, how about building a street library in your front garden or on your street? Books, like plants, are wondrous things. Just ask Groucho Marx: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

Grow community, grow literacy, grow hope. Grow a book garden on your street.

The Emoh Ruo library in Erskinville, Sydney
The Turtle Lane Community Garden library in Camperdown, painted by a team of neighbourhood kids.
A street library painted by Sydney artist William Nghiem as part of a collaboration between Street Library Australia and the Cancer Council