Little Free Library’s ‘hyper-local’ approach to reading

December 4, 2013

The birdhouse-like structure outside Philip Vahab’s home has room for about 40 books, which circulate to a readership he calls “hyper-local.” But his project got some global attention late last month, when a videographer arrived to shoot the Little Free Library for Alhurra, a satellite TV network that broadcasts to the Middle East and North Africa.

“You can’t see it in the States,” Vahab said of the network, which is funded by the U.S. government. “But my family lives in Israel, so they’d be able to see it.”

Established almost a year ago, Vahab’s book box was the first example in the District of a concept that began in Wisconsin in 2009. There are now at least three others in the city, according to the online Little Free Library Index, but that list is not complete. (Vahab’s, for one, is not on it.)

Books are loaned or swapped, and may be replaced with another selection or simply taken. Most are paperbacks, and some are publisher’s proofs, originally distributed to reviewers or booksellers.

At his library, near Meridian Hill Park and 14th and U streets NW, Vahab sees political volumes and New York Times bestsellers but “not a ton of kids’ books.” An orthodontist who grew up in New York, Vahab estimates that the top three categories are self-help, cooking and women’s issues.


Philip Vahab’s Little Library has room for 40 books. (Mark Jenkins)

Vahab has seen trends in the how-to category. “There have been a few waves of wedding books. I’ve given some to my neighbors, who used them and then got married and put them back in. I guess once you’ve had your wedding, there’s no need to keep it.”

Cookbooks, he says, “go pretty quickly. Like within an hour. I guess people around here like to cook. We all have to eat, right?”

One recent Sunday, Vahab had just claimed a how-to book, “Buzz,” for himself. “It was so interesting. It’s about urban beekeeping.”

The book was donated by a regular Vahab knows only by the initials he puts on items he adds to the stock. “I was wondering if that person has [a hive] on his roof, and if I could find him.”

“I’ve never met this guy, but he’s always putting books in there. One day, I’m going to catch him! I should leave him a note.”

Vahab allowed that he’s not so dedicated a book reader as his wife, Lana Lunskaya, but he enjoys the neighborly aspect of the library. In fact, a half-dozen nearby residents contributed much of the cost of erecting the book house, which stands in a landscaped treebox area.

“I think the treebox model works great,” Vahab said. “Because it’s land that the city wants taken care of anyway.”

A sign on the tree explains the workings of the library, including a plan to use Facebook to track who’s been reading which titles. “That kind of never happened,” Vahab said, but he does have a system for archiving the books.

“I go in there maybe once a day. And anything that’s in there, I take pictures of. And when I get around to it, I zap it onto the Facebook page, so there’s an album with two to three hundred books. I probably get 75 percent of it up.”

“I thought that people could look at it, and if they liked something, they would say, ‘I should run and get that book.’ I don’t know if that’s happening.”

But Vahab said he’s not concerned that the cyber aspects of the project haven’t worked as imagined. After all, he said, “these are physical books.”

He thought of the library, he said, “as something that would increase human interactions. Like in person.”

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