Earlier this year, when stay-at-home became a way of life, many of us found ourselves with excess time on our hands. This kind of mandated free time, not unlike the kind imposed by winter storms, is nothing new to Montanans. It is a reflective time, naturally passed while reading a good book.
But for a few long weeks, Covid-19 restrictions made it difficult for readers to get their hands on new reading material. The public library and bookmobile were closed and then returned with reduced hours. Kids couldn’t access their school libraries. Local bookstores closed to browsing. Even Amazon (of course, the very last resort of a well-read Bozemanian) was delaying shipments of non-essential items.
These changes focused the attention of eager readers onto Bozeman’s “Tiny Libraries.” Seeming to sense the moment, the libraries’ hosts and boosters have answered the call. Also called Little Free Libraries, the idea is not new, but it has taken on new importance, and new roles in this unusual time.
A growing number of neighborhoods now feature these small, no cost book exchanges in front of a host’s home. Looking like something between a small bookshelf and an ornate mailbox, many of these libraries are decorated to match or complement that home’s decor. The largest number of them are clustered in “old” Bozeman around downtown, and in the neighborhoods around campus. But an online map shows tiny libraries spreading west and south as the town grows. Many of the smaller communities around the area have at least one of their own.
During the school and business closures this spring, demand at the tiny libraries grew, and for a time their selection was depleted. Hosts dug into their own reserves of used books. They put out the call to neighbors and social media groups to find the shelves restocked overnight. Public library staff toured a number of the little libraries in July. They added paperbacks and kids’ books to the selection, as well as bookmarks and flyers promoting educational programs.
In the early days of the closure, there were (arguably) more critical shortages than just books. Uncertainty about the food supply and changes in shopping behavior led to temporary disruptions in the supply chains of our grocery stores. Everyday items like toilet paper and non-perishable foods were gone from the shelves for weeks. During that time, a number of our book exchanges became tiny food pantries as well, following a national trend. The library hosts, and other often anonymous donors filled the shelves with dry goods and hard-to-find supplies.
The local media took notice at that point. In March and April, each of the local network TV affiliates and regional newspapers covered this trend. Locals recognized tiny libraries in their own neighborhoods and, eager to find ways to help close to home, dropped even more donations. Through spring it was common to see extra packs of toilet paper, or bags of canned goods stacked above and below those tiny spaces.
For now, things are returning to normal. The public library is open. Local bookstores have returned with distancing, and have mastered faster-than-certain-websites delivery. The grocery stores are stocked up again, and we don’t spend unhealthy amounts of time thinking about toilet paper. The tiny libraries are mostly back to their original role as a modest free book exchange. In their way, they reflect the best of Bozeman, and Montana as a whole. Ready to step up and help their neighbors before we think to ask, then back to work without a word.