Q&A: Nancy Young, Owner and Caretaker of a Little Free Library in 4th and Gill

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Nancy Young, Little Free Library librarian. (photo by Rose Kennedy)

What’s the concept here?
It’s sort of a birdhouse for books for people. The first Little Free Library box was built by a man honoring his mother in 2009. There are a number of them in Knoxville. I learned of it from a friend of mine who had one built and painted in honor of a friend who had passed away. I fell in love with the idea. My husband Jeff built the box and he and my kids gave it to me as a gift in honor of my father, who died at age 92 about two years ago. Our neighborhood was perfect for it—we have sidewalks and lots of foot traffic, unlike the ’burbs.

Was your dad a book lover?
He was a voracious reader of great literature, biographies, and a lot of crappy novels. He was a dentist whose office was in walking distance of the public library in Queens. Every week he would bring home a bag of books he checked out—everything you could imagine—go through the bag in a week and get new ones the week after. They would save him the newest titles, so he’d bring home a lot of bestsellers and anything that was on the New York Times list. He had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and carried whatever he was reading to the dining room, to his bedroom, outside. He was always with a book. I think he was most scared towards the end of his life that, even though his mind was still sharp, he didn’t have the physical well being to stay awake and lift the book. We use to laugh that he could only read short, light books. He was no saint, but he did share with me the love of reading—and I think that I have passed that on to my kids. The book box is just a small way to share this with my neighbors.

Are the boxes expensive to build?
No. You can use recycled materials, or buy the wood basically for about $40. Littlefreelibrary.org will send you plans for building. Some people have gotten really creative—my favorite I saw online is one that looks like a miniature 1950 trailer painted pink to match the real thing. Mine has yet to be decorated—but I have ideas!

Do you have to have official approval?
No, typically they are placed on personal, not city, property.

How many books does it hold and how many can people take?
I’d say 15 or 20? It depends. Little paperbacks can be stacked. Children’s books typically are thin. It’s been stuffed full on occasion.

How did the kids’ box start?
We got so many positive comments about the box, and one dad in the neighborhood suggested to my husband adding a box closer to the ground for the young kids to feel ownership of their books and to learn to share and borrow books.

Has anything funny happened with your little library?
The box is actually across the street from my house and it is great fun to watch people from the window or the porch go to the box, look at it, open the door, look at the books and then look around to see if it’s really okay to “take” a book. I have often shouted, “Take one! Enjoy!” If we’re out mowing the lawn, or just outside, it’s a great way to start a conversation. I think that’s the whole idea—it’s about building community.

Rose Kennedy came to Knoxville to work as an editorial assistant on 13-30’s Retail Appliance Management Series and never saw a reason to leave. Her “so uncool I’m cool” career among the alt weekly newspaper crowd has led to award-winning articles on Dr. Bill Bass and the Body Farm and cyber-bullying at West High School, and treasonous food columns about preferring unsweet tea and feeling ambivalent about biscuits.

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