I double-check my map and turn left. At the end of the street, I pull up to the library, park, and step out. I don’t need to keep my voice down to use this library. I don’t need a library card, and I don’t even need to go inside. Actually, I can’t go inside, because the building, elevated to eye-level by a sturdy post, is only about 18 inches wide— big enough to hold two dozen picture books and a handful of novels. This is a Little Free Library, a traveling bookworm’s dream come true.

What is a Little Free Library?

Little Free Library is a network of elf-sized libraries located in front yards, college campuses, public spaces, and places of business. Although it’s a recent movement—the foundation was created in 2012—it has taken the world by storm. According to the organization’s website, there are over 80,000 “branches” in nearly 100 countries! That means there are hundreds of thousands of books available for selecting, reading, and returning. The best part of this is that libraries and books are provided by community members and open to all without cost or registration. This is good news for everyone, particularly frequent travelers and digital nomads.

Little free library in a mail box
Little free library in a mail box. Photo: Breana Johnson

How to Find a Little Free Library

I discovered this particular library using the online map of Little Free Libraries. It’s the fifth library I’ve used in Bakersfield, California, where my family is living for a couple of months. The first I stumbled upon while walking my dog through our neighborhood, a convenient three-minute jaunt from our Airbnb. The quick walk to the red-roofed library became my reward for finishing books during the wee morning hours as my tiny son nursed. It didn’t take long to finish all the books that interested me, despite the rotation of literature left by other library users. I soon moved on to a library the next neighborhood over—a repurposed newspaper dispenser painted Doctor Who blue – and finally ended up at the library I’m at now, a few blocks away. Unlike my hometown, Glendale, Arizona, which has only nine Little Free Libraries, this city has over 50 libraries. I won’t run out of reading material any time soon.

Save Money While Traveling

There are two reasons why Little Free Libraries are excellent for travelers and digital nomads. The first is obvious, and it’s found right in the name: they are free, both of money and of responsibility. You have no obligation to return a book to the same library, so you can enjoy it during your travels and drop it off in another town once you’re finished.

Little Free Libraries are also ideal if you frequently move like my family does. Although we rarely stay long enough in one place to justify residency and library cards, we don’t have to resign ourselves to buying books all the time. We also don’t have to rely on our eBook apps. I love Kindle, but let’s be honest—it’s not the same as holding a book in your hand.

Plus, there’s something fun about the limited selection at each Little Free Library. It encourages me to pick something I might never have chosen among thousands of eBook options. Maze Runner isn’t the sort of book I usually read, but finding it at a Little Free Library in California introduced me to a series I love!

Engage with the Community

Little Free Libraries also give you a chance to engage with the local community. I have found that books in the libraries tend to reflect the cultural surroundings; here in California, I find a lot of books that take place in the state. For example, The Plague of Thieves Affair, a Los Angeles murder mystery, from the library down the road. Californian authors also write many in my local Little Library. I devoured John Kralik’s A Simple Act of Gratitude, then took it with me on a trip to Arizona to share with Great State 48. I left it at a Little Free Library in a cute local ice cream shop.

I also find titles that reflect the demographics of the neighborhood. Near a Catholic church, I found Resisting Happiness by clergyman Matthew Kelly. Later, I grabbed a picture book for my son from a front yard adorned with abandoned scooters and plastic toys.

Standing before the neatly blue painted Little Free Library in Bakersfield, I undo the latch. The yard that offers this birdhouse-like library also shows signs of childhood play. As soon as I pull open the tiny door, a girl of about nine or ten comes flying out of the house. She wants to see what I am leaving and show it to her family. I assume she needs her parents to approve it as appropriate reading material to represent their library. Until this moment, I haven’t considered Little Free Libraries to be particularly interpersonal. You leave a book; you take a book, and you walk away. However, I suddenly realize that the libraries also offer the potential for meeting locals.

A few seconds later, the girl comes back out, a bit disappointed that Still Alice is a grown-up novel and not a kid book. Apparently, her family’s Little Free Library is generally frequented by adults rather than children. She watches as I choose a new book.

“Remember,” she tells me very seriously, “You have to leave the same number of books you take.” I hold up my selection to prove I’m not hoarding books,

“Right. One and one,” I agree. I make a mental note to leave a children’s book if I revisit this library.

Making the Libraries Part of Summer Plans

As we make summer plans to travel the country while working digitally, my husband and I don’t intend to take up valuable luggage space with books. Instead, we know we can stop along the way to retrieve literature from Little Free Libraries. The fun is not only in getting new reading material, but also in treasure hunting for the libraries.

I am thankful that this era of high mobility and digital connectivity doesn’t have to discourage us from reading. Instead, thanks to community efforts like Little Free Library, we can engage in the timeless art of reading, even when on the road. Whether you’re a digital nomad, a travel enthusiast, or a “staycationer,” look for a Little Free Library near you.

A free little library