May 17, 2023, GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Nora LeClaire and her younger brother, Charlie, browsed a small selection of children’s books housed in a wooden box outside Zinser Elementary School’s front entrance.
Second-grader Charlie pulled out a lengthier book for his fourth-grade sister who was looking for something more challenging than picture books.
Their dad, Brian, said both kids are avid readers; Nora is reading Harry Potter books and Charlie reads to their 4-year-old sister before bedtime.
“Going to a library can sometimes be overwhelming, like having too many choices on a menu,” he said. “It’s easier to choose a book with fewer choices.”
The LeClaire family is one of many enjoying new little lending libraries at Zinser, Alpine and Central elementaries in the Kenowa Hills School District.
The boxes, handcrafted and painted by Grand Rapids Community College students, operate under a “take what you need, leave want you can” system, and are monitored by each school’s librarian.
Compact, freestanding libraries — modeled after but not always affiliated with a national movement — allow for book-sharing within neighborhoods and communities. Individuals or organizations can place tiny libraries in their yards or on their properties for others to enjoy.
By Students, For Students
A group of GRCC students completing an honors program capstone project came up with the idea to provide books for young readers.
One member of the group was Zoe Paskewicz, a former Zinser student and 2022 Kenowa Hills High School graduate.
Paskewicz and three other GRCC students explained the origins of the little lending library project.
“We were asked to identify an issue that we cared about and, for me, that has always been reading and literacy,” John Chappelow said.
For the project, the students identified problems related to reading and access to books.
“National reading scores are declining, books are expensive, often making them inaccessible to families, and even libraries can have barriers,” Paskewicz said. “Districts like Kenowa Hills have low-income families and migrant workers with limited access to transportation or a permanent address to apply for a library card.”
Their proposed solution: collect book donations, then build and fill little libraries at Kenowa Hills’ three elementary schools.
The group hosted a book drive on GRCC’s campus on April 3, in addition to collecting books via a donation box in the college’s library and an Amazon wish list.
Paskewicz worked from her current home in Florida, managing the majority of the project’s communications and online work.
“I made lots of calls and wrote lots of emails to collaborate our efforts with the schools,” she said.
Superintendent Jerry Hopkins also met with the group to help bring their plans to fruition.
Paskewicz added: “(Maintenance Director) Sam Wiltheiss is our favorite person. He poured the concrete and installed the boxes.”
Ester Carpenter, the artistic and creative one, according to her group, painted a sunflower on each library and managed the budget request forms for GRCC.
“Alycia (Pietrzak) and I did a lot of work with the interactive components,” Ester said. “She painted the reading buddy bookmarks, and we created reading challenges and vocabulary sheets to put inside the libraries.”
Added Pietrzak: “We wanted to encourage students to engage with the books they read. When you engage with it, it becomes something bigger and more interesting.”
Little Library, Long-lasting Legacy
Paskewicz said community support was a contributing factor for choosing Kenowa Hills for the libraries.
Zinser Principal Ross Willick said he was excited to have the newly installed library at the school, and families are already making use of it.
“We have such active reading programs during the school year, so this really serves as a resource for after school or during summer,” he said.
Another benefit of the libraries, said Carpenter: “They are more independent than school libraries. We have several kid-friendly books on race and social issues, which is another thing students’ education can lack.”
The little lending library creators say they hope they continue to be used and maintained by future librarians and honors students from the college, Zoe said.
“Five to 10 years from now, future students may expand on our idea.”
This story was reported by Alexis Stark of the School News Network.