Forget the bulldozers, cranes and steamrollers. Gannon University students are in the process of constructing libraries on a much smaller scale, while staying true to the mission of encouraging reading.
Nash Library reference librarian Deborah West has brought a national movement called Little Free Libraries to Gannon’s campus in pursuit of her passion for providing books to people who would not normally have access to them.
The concept of the Little Free Libraries is to provide a system of “take a book, give a book,” where the books are housed in small, birdhouse-like vessels. There are more than 2,000 libraries located across the country, according to West, the largest concentration of which is in New Orleans, thanks to the University of Louisiana.
The 11 locations for Gannon’s libraries are all within the Erie-GAINS neighborhood, and include places such as St. Benedict Center, Lake Erie Arboretum at Frontier Park (L.E.A.F.) and the Intermodal Transportation Center.
West said she first learned about the little library movement while watching a program on CBS Sunday morning, but put the idea “on the back burner.” It wasn’t until several months later that West brought the idea to Ken Brundage, the director of Nash Library, who suggested they contact the Blasco Library, the main branch of the Erie County public library system.
“We wanted to make sure we weren’t stepping on any toes,” West said.
Once they got the go-ahead from the public library, West said she reached out to the service learning department and Dr. Karinna Vernaza, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.
Vernaza has been working on bringing the project to life with the help of her first-year seminar students, who have designed and nearly completed constructing the 11 little libraries, all of which have a different look.
“I told them they could do whatever they wanted, as long as they were creative,” Vernaza said.
Vernaza said that aside from the obvious benefits the free libraries will have on the community’s potential readership, she hopes that the process has taught her students about leadership, working in a group and working through the design process.
Each group of freshman engineering students was responsible for contacting the sponsor for each of the locations, as well as putting together a presentation and prototype that they pitched to the committee in charge of the project.
The designs range from a Noah’s Ark-style boat, to a robot, to a Greyhound bus. Funding for the necessary materials was provided by the engineering department.
Each library was designed with its future location in mind, according to freshman mechanical engineering major, Nick Sobina, whose group designed the bus-shaped library that will be placed outside the Intermodal Transportation Center.
“Hopefully with all the traffic from travelers, the library will get a lot of business,” he said.
Freshman electrical engineering major Jake Friedrich also played a role in the unique design of his group’s robot-themed library.
Friedrich said that he not only recognizes the skill required in constructing each library, but the bigger message that the little libraries will send in the hopes of raising literacy rates in Erie.
The task of keeping the libraries stocked and free from vandalism will hopefully, according to Vernaza, fall on the sponsor.
West also said she hopes the little libraries will serve to strengthen and even further the public library’s purpose. Though the public library’s books are free to all, in order to actually check one out, the reader requires a permanent address.
West said this is limiting to Erie’s homeless, many of which are children who she says would benefit from the “imagining” and “dreaming” that reading encourages.
West, who has already donated 200 of her own books, said the other difference with the Little Free Libraries is that there is no due date.
“If someone keeps one, if a child falls in love with a book, that’s OK with me too,” she said. “It’s been shown that in those homes with reading materials, children have more success later on.”
Friedrich said this assignment is different from many other service projects, as it gives back to the community all year long, and Sobina added that he likes the fact that the goal is to help the community learn. Sobina and West both stressed that the books are not intended for just children.
“The majority of the libraries will be located outside in a commonly visited place by both children and adults,” Sobina said.
West added that the libraries will also appeal to more than just fiction lovers.
“We want to include science and history books too,” she said. “There are just a lot of possibilities.”
The construction process is nearly at an end, as Vernaza said the students must complete their work by Friday. After that, she hopes that they will be able to start getting them in place and filled with books. The libraries will be able to hold 12-24 books each.
West said she has seen the libraries as they have gone through the construction process and is very impressed by the thought the students have put into their creations, and is excited to get the books out to the public.
“I just want the books to be read,” she said. “I can’t wait to get them out on the streets.”