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One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. -- Plato (429-347 BC)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Regulating Community: Local government Cracks Down On Little Free Libraries

I can think of few things less controversial than the Little Free Library movement, an idea for sharing the love of reading that simply involves putting some books in front of your house for neighbors to borrow. Unfortunately, some people are determined to make sure that every last bit of community life conforms to the dotted i's and crossed t's of local government regulations. This means that cities have been shutting down these perfectly innocuous little libraries gracing American's front yards on the grounds that they are "illegal detached structures." As Watchdog reporters have found in Kansas, Nebraska, Louisiana and beyond, this assault by nanny state government on both reading and neighborliness harms community ties and discourages an educated citizenry. It's a trend that threatens our core values as Americans, and one that citizens should be informed about. ~ Erik Telford, President, The Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity

by Andrew Collins, Franklin Center: In the age of The Shallows and Bowling Alone, which raise concerns over Americans’ tendency toward isolation and distraction, many citizens are pushing back through the Little Free Library movement. The idea is simple: foster community and literacy by sharing books, usually presented in a crate or small structure in one’s front yard where neighbors can access them at their leisure.

It’s hard to image such a movement stirring up controversy, but that hasn’t stopped local governments from using every technicality and clause in their ordinances to crack down on the popular book-sharing system. In a recent piece for The Atlantic covering the travails of Little Free Libraries, Conor Friedersdorf summarizes the problem in a scathing indictment of the governing class.

“Alas, a subset of Americans are determined to regulate every last aspect of community life,” he wrote. “Due to selection bias, they are overrepresented among local politicians and bureaucrats. And so they have power, despite their small-mindedness, inflexibility, and lack of common sense so extreme that they’ve taken to cracking down on Little Free Libraries, of all things.”

Friedersdorf goes on to quote an L.A. Times column by Michael Schaub that calls out local governments for their misplaced priorities in targeting the libraries.

“Crime, homelessness and crumbling infrastructure are still a problem in almost every part of America,” Schaub wrote, “but two cities have recently cracked down on one of the country’s biggest problems: small-community libraries where residents can share books.”

As Watchdog reporters have found over the past year, however, the abuse hasn’t been limited to just two cities, but many – everywhere from Wisconsin to Los Angeles. Last summer in Nebraska, for example, Watchdog reporter Deena Winter wrote about how city officials in Lincoln ordered a church to remove a library on the curb of its front lawn just two weeks after it was built – or face a potential fine of up to $500.

Members of the Indian Village Neighborhood Association, which erected the library, were quick to voice outrage. Director Barbara Arendt looked up the city code referenced in the letter to the church. It talks about an “immediate public hazard” and “public nuisance.”

“A library? Excuse me?” she said. “Does our city have its priorities messed up or what?”

Earlier this year in Shreveport, Louisiana, resident Ricky Edgarton received a cease-and-desist letter from Caddo Parish officials after he built a Little Free Library to share some of his many books. The parish, apparently, considered it a commercial enterprise, even though Edgarton wasn’t making any money off the venture. And even though a number of other Shreveport residents have similar libraries in their front yards, the Metropolitan Planning Commission singled out Edgarton because an anonymous caller complained about it.

Edgarton said it would cost him $500 to appeal the MPC’s decision, so in symbolic protest, he responded by putting a padlock around the structure (rather than moving the books back into his house). Eventually parish officials decided to temporarily suspend the rules on his structure.

Perhaps the most high-profile incident took place in the city of Leawood, Kansas, where 9-year-old Spencer Collins faced city citations after he worked with his dad and grandpa to build a Little Free Library as a Mother’s Day gift. To comply with the code, the Collins would have had to attach the storage box to their house – which largely defeats the purpose of having the library in the first place, as it reduces curbside visibility and makes it less accessible to potential users.

The city, in a massive lack of foresight, was blindsided by the backlash. Many of those who heard about the situation exhorted the city council to amend its code to permit the Collins family to keep their library in place. Bolstered by widespread support online and national media coverage, Spencer made his case to city officials in Leawood.

“I think Little Free Libraries are good for Leawood, and I hope you will change the code,” he said.

In response, the city granted him a temporary stay against their municipality ordinance until they could decide what to do about it.

Kansas’ Poet Laureate Wyatt Townley, who spoke out in support of Collins, made perhaps the most eloquent case for the homemade libraries.

“There’s something about a little free library, the intimacy of it … that as a small home for books, and as neighbor reaching out to neighbor, gives us something that a large library cannot,” she said. “And so, I think we need more, not less, community in this day and age. I think we need more, not fewer, readers and thinkers in this day and age, and I think that the Little Free Library addresses both these needs in a single, graceful gesture.”

Tags: Little Free Libraries, The Franklin Center, Andrew Collins, local government, bureaucracy, control, books, To share or post to your site, click on "Post Link". Please mention / link to the ARRA News Service. and "Like" Facebook Page - Thanks!
Posted by Bill Smith at 6:15 PM - Post Link


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