P042913_1600How can you keep paper library books relevant in an increasingly digital age? Thinking outside the box in where you put them. Or perhaps thinking inside the box.

A few weeks ago as I was bicycling home from my day job, my eye was caught by a little box sitting in the yard of one of the suburban homes as I passed. (On the east side of Fremont a couple blocks north of Sunshine, if you’re in Springfield.) It looked not unlike a birdhouse, but instead of birds, it had books! A sign exhorted passers-by to take some and leave some.

It turns out that this is only one of literally hundreds of such book boxes, all over the world. It is part of a project called Little Free Library, to place leave-and-take book boxes all over for people to use. There are four here in Springfield, Missouri, and many more all over the world—mostly in North America, but there seems to be at least one on every continent save Antarctica.

This isn’t the only project doing interesting things with library books, either. The Seattle Public Library has launched a “Books on Bikes” initiative, in which it uses bicycle trailers that can carry a limited selection of books to different neighborhoods, extending the library’s reach beyond the walls of its buildings and not using extra gasoline. The program is running on a trial basis over the summer and will be evaluated in the fall to decide if it should be continued.

Like the book-sharing-and-tracking site BookCrossing that we’ve mentioned here a couple of times, these programs leverage the nature of printed books as physical artifacts that can be transported and shared from person to person without triggering the copyright and DRM issues e-books encounter. And people don’t need any special equipment to read them. It’s a reminder that there are still places for paper books, and ways they can bring enjoyment to the lives of others.

P061413_1055Today I happened to be passing back by that Little Free Library box, and took a look at what was inside it. I hadn’t expected to find anything of interest, but as I peered at the selection of titles I noticed one of my favorite books there, that I had been wanting to pass along to my father to read. I almost left it there, but then I realized that the entire point of this library was to give people access to the books they wanted, and it was right there. So I picked it up and will pass it along to my father next time I see him. I’ll bring something else back to put in there another time.

The book was Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart. So I guess you could say the box did have birds in it after all.