Shortly before his death, at 62, of pancreatic cancer, Todd sent a heartfelt message to the world: “I really believe in a Little Free Library on every block and a book in every hand. I believe people can fix their neighborhoods, fix their communities, develop systems of sharing, learn from each other, and see that they have a better place on this planet to live.”
Todd was a big-ideas guy, who liked “grand stands” and invoking Gandhi. People often referred to him as a Johnny Appleseed. Like that mythic figure, Bol began with a single seed — a book box he made out of wood from his garage door and planted in his front yard — and watched as it spread through his Hudson, Wis., neighborhood and beyond. Tony Bol recalls his brother saying: “I’m going to see where my followers take me.”
Tony Bol believes that he is carrying out Todd’s vision. Little Free Library believes it is protecting it. Todd’s 31-year-old son, Austin, says he knows one thing for sure about his father: If he knew about the current schism, “it would break his heart.”
The trouble began in November 2018, when Tony’s brief stint as interim executive director of Little Free Library ended. (Tony says he was dismissed; Little Free Library says it cannot comment on confidential employee information.) On Jan. 2, Todd’s birthday, Tony started Share With Others, a for-profit company that sells, among other things, wooden boxes with a storage area for books. Tony, 61, says the Share With Others idea was a project he and Todd had discussed and that some proceeds will go toward a foundation honoring his brother. Says Tony: “We want to continue Todd’s legacy for giving back to others.”
In June 2019, Little Free Library filed for a new trademark for use of the words “Little Free Library” in connection with “wooden boxes with a storage area for books.” (A previous trademark, initiated by Todd Bol and Little Free Library co-founder Rick Brooks, was more limited in scope.)
Margret Aldrich, a spokesperson for the Hudson, Wis.-based nonprofit, says the new application was a response to infringements on platforms like Etsy and Amazon. In one case, Aldrich says, a company in Ukraine was selling book boxes called “Little Free Libraries,” so the organization “invoked its trademark protection.” (Amazon’s chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Tony says the Little Free Library’s June trademark application is an overreaching request, “akin to some organization wanting to own all bird houses by applying to have trademark control over ‘wooden boxes with a nesting area for birds.’ ”
Aldrich responds plainly: “People can’t sell things using our name,” adding that the organization does “not have — nor are we seeking — a trademark over all wooden book boxes.”
Things escalated in September, when Share With Others shuttered on Etsy for two weeks, Bol says, after objections were raised over its use of the words “little library” and other variations, on its product descriptions. Share With Others — based in the Bols’ hometown of Stillwater, Minn. — had to eliminate some of its products, Bol says, and change its name from “Little Libraries from Share With Others to Sharing Libraries from Share With Others.” Bol, a longtime events programmer for Minnesota Public Radio, says the shutdown and wording changes cost him “thousands and thousands of dollars.”
The issue of trademark in cases like this is a complicated one, says Madhavi Sunder, a professor of law at Georgetown. “Little Free Library does have a right to prevent confusing uses that would make people think a box is coming from their nonprofit organization,” she says. “But as long as people are using the words descriptively and in good faith — to simply describe their box — they have a fair use right to do that.”
Of course anyone can make a box for books and put it on his or her own property. But when you buy a book box from the Little Free Library organization (for roughly $300 and up), it becomes something more: a part of the Little Free Library network, with a number, a plaque and a place on the official map. If you build your own box, you can pay $40 for the plaque and registration. By registering, you become a “steward,” a caretaker who is part of a larger community around the world.
In the beginning, that designation, Little Free Library co-founder Rick Brooks says, “was the essential social, psychological, spiritual link between one library and the next. It’s the notion that people meet people they wouldn’t have met; they share things that they value with each other.” Getting the initial trademark in 2013, he says, was a way to ensure that people had a good understanding of the concept: “This is more than a box; this is more than books; it’s a whole set of relationships. Selling the libraries was, in a way, a way to sell the ideas.”
Today, there are more than 90,000 registered Little Free Library book-sharing boxes in 91 countries. There are Little Free Libraries carved into trees, Little Free Libraries that mimic the houses they stand in front of, Little Free Libraries that look like churches and food trucks, Little Free Libraries festooned with peace signs and flowers. There is even a functioning Little Free Library box in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
About 60 percent of little libraries — with a lower case — aren’t registered with the organization. A quick spin around Etsy or Pinterest will bring up an array of designs for cute and clever boxes for books that are also unaffiliated. Some nonprofit organizations, like the Literacy Club, based in Sylmar, Calif., make book boxes that look like Little Free Libraries, but aren’t called that. Jean Chadwick, the group’s executive director and a friend of Todd Bol’s, says that when she started her organization in 2015, she was aware that Little Free Library was protective of its name, so she avoided using any part of it. She went with something simple: book boxes. “A book box completely explained what we do. It’s about the books inside a box.” She finds the current debate over word usage odd. Making book boxes “was an idea that was put in the wild and it caught on,” she says.
Todd Bol himself reluctantly accepted that not all little free libraries were registered Little Free Libraries, according to multiple people. If Todd saw a little library without a registration plaque, sometimes he would leave a reminder note. Other times, he would give away the plaques. At the same time, Tony recalls, he wasn’t dogmatic about it. Once “a woman confronted Todd, telling him she didn’t want to register and didn’t have to. He told her, ‘You’re right.’ He didn’t let it get to him.”
Brooks, who retired from Little Free Library in 2014, says he’s torn about the proliferation of DIY little libraries. When he and Todd were initially building the boxes, they could ensure the quality of the product and the experience. “The idea that there are carpenters all around the world making these boxes is great,” he says. “But you shouldn’t call them Little Free Libraries. That’s like calling an Edsel a Chevy.”
Still, the 71-year-old feels confident that everything will work out. “I’m a real optimist. The miracle to me is that a wonderful, simple idea has caught on with so many people in so many cultures. It’s different kinds of people all coming together. All God’s children got a voice in the choir,” says Brooks, who lives in rural Illinois.
Everyone seems eager for tensions to subside, especially Todd’s son Austin. “I hate calling this a ‘dispute,’ ” he says. “The immediate Bol family would like to support both Little Free Library and Share With Others.”
Austin, who briefly worked for Little Free Library, says that “preventing others from supporting their own neighborhoods through community sharing networks and making their own little free libraries was not an idea my father supported. He knew that Little Libraries or share boxes or whatever you wanted to call them could make an immediate impact in people’s lives by promoting literacy and one-on-one connections. . . . It’s not about us. It’s not about money. It’s not about fame or recognition. It’s about our communities and how we can connect with one another in an increasingly digital and detached world.”
Austin, who now works as a paramedic in La Crosse, Wis., added: “My father was my hero, my mentor, my counselor and my best friend. I know that he would want what’s best for everyone, and ultimately what’s best for our communities.”
Nora Krug is an editor and writer at Book World.