A few days ago we installed our newly completed street library and I am over the moon about it! If you have ever thought about doing something similar then all I can say is, GO FOR IT. Here is my street library story… plus a few tips I picked up along the way.
I remember seeing a street library when I was on holiday last year. It was in Pearl Beach on the Central Coast of NSW. At first I was casually curious but then my imagination kicked in and I started dreaming about how wonderful it would be to install something similar in my area. The concept of a street library captures so many of my interests: community, creativity, simple living, recycling and books.
Ever since I learned to read I have had an avid interest in books and libraries. Having hundreds of books at my fingertips in my primary school library was like being in a wonderland. The freedom to read meant I could soar above my small existence, travelling widely in my imagination and meeting characters who surprised, inspired and challenged me.
What I love about libraries is that they can be as humble as a pop-up book selection for early morning commuters at the local train station or as jaw-dropping and grand as the Public Library in New York City. Most of all I love that libraries are for everyone.
A few months ago I watched The Public, a film written and directed by Emilio Estevez. The story is about a public library that had become a haven for the homeless in a large US city. The characters in the story wrestle with the various perceptions of the role that a library has in a community. The story takes a while to build but once the momentum picks up it is compelling viewing and has a great ending.
Here is a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMRfBlhMjoA
Around the same time I read the novel Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes which sparked my interest in mobile libraries. All through history and around the world there are devoted librarians who take books to communities in remote places on bicycles, donkeys, horses, trucks and mini-vans. Like many other librarians they believe that libraries serve everyone, young and old, people from all language and cultural backgrounds, city folk, country folk, rich and poor.
Inspired by the Little Free Library movement in the USA that started in 2009, Street Library Australia shares the dream of encouraging communities to read through making books easily and freely available.
This dream resonates with me and as you can tell from my long-winded introduction, many paths have led me to install our own street library. As with most ideas I have, I spend a lot of time, (often months!) mulling, researching and imagining before I get practical. With Coronavirus restrictions in place this year and local libraries shut down, I finally had the impetus to take action.
My first port of call was to peruse the official Street Library Australia website: https://streetlibrary.org.au/ It has a wealth of information about how to make street libraries a reality. I also started following Street Library Australia on Instagram to gather more ideas.
While ordering ready built street libraries via the Street Libraries Australia website is an option, I decided to keep it local and approach Blue Mountains artisan and woodworker, Peter Kabanoff, to see if he would be willingly to custom make a street library for me. He was so keen to be involved in the project and constructed exactly what I had in mind. He uses recycled materials in all his creations which also makes me really happy!
I have documented my personal street library process below. I imagine it will be different for everyone. Hopefully you can learn from some of my mistakes.
- Construct the library – This was the biggest hurdle for me because I am not very handy at making things. I would suggest either ordering your street library from the Street Library Australia website (a men’s shed put them together so it supports a good cause), make it yourself or find someone handy to make it like I did. If you are making it yourself, check your measurements carefully and be prepared to make the construction weatherproof. The Street Library Australia website provides detailed instructions if you decide to build it yourself.
- Decide on a theme – This was the fun part for me! In reality you don’t have to have a theme. You can just paint the street library however you want just as long as it is given a few coats of weather proof varnish at the end. We love our pet chickens so I decided on a chicken theme. The beloved Chiquita, Anouk, Esmerelda, Querida and Mel are now immortalised on our street library!
- Sketch the ideas – If your theme has a few parts to it, then definitely do some preliminary sketches and decide exactly what you want it to look like. I tossed out so many of my ideas (because I had too many!) and had to narrow things down. My daughter helpfully reminded me to keep it simple!
- Paint the library – I painted a base coat and then pencilled in my images once it was dry. Then I used lightfast paint (Jo Sonja paints from our local art shop) and brushes of different sizes to paint first the background and then the foreground objects. Most of the painting needed a couple of coats to achieve the coverage I wanted.
- Do the text next – If you include text like I did, you can either use lightfast paint and a very fine brush. You will need a steady hand! I decided to take a chance on Posca pens (also from our local art shop). The white one worked really well but the black… keep reading!
- Lesson 1 on varnish – Varnishing is an essential part of the process because it helps to weatherproof the street library. I used a marine strength varnish and applied two coats 24 hours apart. Here’s where things got a bit sad. My white Posca pen text looked AMAZING. My black Posca pen text ran everywhere with the application of varnish. This was even though I had used both pens in the same time frame and they had the same amount of drying time. I have no idea what went wrong but the black pen smudged. Once the damage was done, there was no way to fix it so I just had to get over the disappointment.
- Lesson 2 on varnish – Applying varnish is quite an art in itself. Who knew? Obviously not me. I knew to STIR the varnish thoroughly before using it (don’t shake it like paint because then air bubbles will form all over your surfaces). I also knew to use a BRUSH rather than a sponge to apply the varnish, again to avoid the dreaded air bubbles. My mistake was not to take enough care with my application. I was so excited to get it finished that I did not check carefully for spots that dribbled and needed brushing smooth. By the time I noticed these spots the varnish was dry and I couldn’t fix them. Sigh!
- Order an official Street Library Australia sign – This is optional of course, but I decided to join the movement! Signs can be ordered from the Street Library Australia website and do not take long to arrive in the post. I glued mine on with a strong adhesive. I narrowly missed out on gluing my fingers together… wear disposable gloves, dear people!
- Mount and secure the library – I needed help with this but not everyone will. The main idea is to secure the street library to its spot so it can’t be easily removed or knocked over. Pick a spot where it will be fairly visible and accessible to passers-by. Make sure it is at a good height for little ones to browse too.
- Fill it with books – This was by far the best part for me! I had collected a pile of books that I love. I made sure they were quality reading and in good condition. Some were donated for the cause, some were ones we had read and outgrown, some I found inexpensively in op shops. I ended up with a good range for all ages and interests. I printed flyers from the Street Library Australia website that explain how a street library works and placed a flyer in each book. I also printed out my own stickers for each book to say where they had come from just in case they ever wanted to come back.
Making my street library dream come true has been such an enjoyable process and I suspect that the joy I have experienced has been a little contagious. I hope our street library continues to bring much happiness to our community and perhaps beyond.
If you think you have caught the street library bug and are local to the Blue Mountains area, Peter Kabanoff is happy to make a bespoke street library for you. Here’s where to find him:
I am still thinking about whether to register our street library. What do you think? If you also have a street library story, I would love to hear it. Post a comment or email me.