Almost everyone has heard of Little Free Libraries these days, and most residents of major American cities have at least one within walking distance. The benefits of increasing literacy and fostering sharing in the local community are highly appealing, which is why these neighborhood book-lending centers have exploded in popularity since Hudson, Wisconsin, resident Todd Bol built the first Little Free Library as a tribute to his mother in 2009, per Little Free Library.
But while Little Free Libraries are great, there's no need to stop there when supporting your community with free goods. If you're looking for other ways to help your neighbors, consider adding one of these Little Free Library alternatives to your yard.
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1. Little Banned Library
Oscar Wilde once said, "The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame." If you live in a community that has fallen victim to school and library book bans, there is a way to fight back right from your own front yard.
Created by real estate developer and Houston resident Jennifer Clements and her husband Glenn, according to Houston Public Media, Little Banned Libraries are a twist on Little Free Libraries, specializing in censored titles, like those addressing racism, sexuality, and gender identity. The idea is to fight back against book bans by providing people with the tools to form their own opinions on these titles.
2. Little Free Pantry
Inspired by the success of Little Free Libraries, Little Free Pantries were first introduced in 2016 by Jessica McClard of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Also called "mini pantries," "blessing boxes," "community pantries," or "give boxes," these donation centers provide food and toiletry items to those in need. Unlike a traditional food pantry, those who accept donations do not have to fill out any paperwork and can take products anytime.
While the donation areas are open to anyone and not always monitored, if you run one, try to encourage donors to only contribute nonperishable foods; personal care items; and kid-friendly products, such as baby care products, art supplies, or party favors. It's best to discourage clothing donations, as they are bulky and can quickly fill up the pantry.
Little Free Pantry operators are not legally responsible for the safety of the food being distributed under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. However, it's still a good idea to regularly monitor the cabinet and remove foods past their expiration date, opened items, leaking or bulging cans or bottles, or perishable products that require refrigeration.
3. A Community Refrigerator
Community refrigerators provide a place for people to donate and receive perishable foods, including fruits, vegetables, milk, meats, cheeses, and precooked meals. Offering these resources requires a more substantial commitment than a free pantry, as the refrigerator requires an electrical source (which will add to your utility bill), shelter from extreme weather, and regular cleanings. Sadly, many of these locations are targeted by vandalism, according to Reason Foundation.
In addition, cooked food donations are often subject to additional local and statewide laws, so do your research before adding a community fridge to your property. For example, many states only allow community fridges to offer fruits; vegetables; or prepackaged, shelf-stable items, such as dried, canned, or baked goods. Other areas may allow cooked food to only come from kitchens with a food safety certificate. Some even require refrigerators offering cooked foods to be supervised at all times and have all foods inspected when they are donated.
Freedge has many legal guides available for those interested in providing a community refrigerator, including state-by-state restrictions — but be sure to check your local county and city ordinances as well.
4. Little Free Closet
While they have yet to catch on the way libraries and pantries have, Little Free Closets are an excellent way to provide individuals with materials to keep them warm in winter and hygienic all year long. Though you'll need a larger space to accommodate clothing, especially much-needed but bulky items, like winter coats, these donation centers are sure to be appreciated by those who use them.
To keep things running smoothly, encourage donors to only donate clean, unripped, and stain-free clothing items and emphasize the need for warm items, like coats, blankets, and gloves, as well as personal hygiene items, such as socks, underwear, and undershirts. While you can hang up the clothing, Little Free Projects states that it may simplify things and maximize your usable space if you bag the clothes and write the item type and size on the outside of the bag.
5. Give a Plant, Take a Plant
If you're a gardener who constantly finds yourself with excess seeds, clippings, seedlings, or plant divisions, This Is Tucson reports that a free plant stand can help you share your bounty with other plant lovers in the area. You can also use these plant centers to share excess homegrown fruits or vegetables.
Use your gardening savvy to determine the best placement for your stand so baby plants will get enough sun but not too much. Don't forget to water the plants as needed until someone else takes them home.
6. Little Seed Library
A Little Seed Library is a great alternative if you love sharing locally grown plants with your neighbors but don't feel like maintaining living flora in a plant stand. Place your homegrown seeds in labeled envelopes inside the cabinet and encourage your friends and neighbors to exchange seeds together.
One great benefit of seed and plant libraries, according to Garden Therapy, is that you know everything exchanged in these boxes will thrive in your area's microclimate and can likely fare well against local plant pests, diseases, and fungi.
7. Little Free Garden
Those who love growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs and sharing their bounty with their neighbors may also consider starting a Little Free Garden. Unlike a Give a Plant, Take a Plant stand or a Little Seed Library, this garden stays in the yard of the person growing it, and visitors simply take the resulting produce. If you decide to host a Little Free Garden, be sure to put up a sign to ensure passersby know they are allowed to take produce from the garden.
8. Little Fiber Library
Gardening isn't for everyone, and fans of other hobbies can always share their passions with the public as well. Those who love needlework crafts have found a way to support neighbors with similar interests by introducing Little Fiber Libraries, or "Fibraries."
Per a Little Fiber Library in Jacksonville, Florida, donations can include a variety of knitting, crocheting, sewing, macrame, and embroidery supplies, including yarn, thread, patterns, needles, embroidery hoops, fabric, beads, how-to books, and more. While these boxes may not be as popular as gardening stands, they're a welcome addition in neighborhoods with many crafters.
9. Free Blockbuster Franchises
Many people born before the advent of streaming have fond memories of browsing their local video store to choose that weekend's viewing for their family. While streaming may have put Blockbuster out of business, Free Blockbuster franchises are bringing DVDs, video games, CDs, and even VHS tapes back in fashion by letting neighbors swap physical copies of their favorite movies, shows, music, and games.
10. Puppy Pit Stops
Why should these community donation boxes be reserved for only humans? Pups walking through the neighborhood are just as likely to enjoy dog treats, beds, sweaters, and toys, so many people have added a Little Dog Library or Puppy Pit Stop in their yard.
These pooch-friendly supply spaces may be as simple as a wire basket filled with toys and leashes, or according to This Is Tucson, they could involve large displays with a bowl of fresh water; a trash can for "doggy presents"; and a stand filled with foods, treats, and toys. Donors may include pet stores with excess supplies, pet owners with picky pups, or those trying to move on after their favorite furry friend passed over the rainbow bridge.
11. Area-Based Toy Libraries
Sometimes, parents and kids forget their toys when they play away from home or can't afford them in the first place. If you live near a beach or snowy hill, you can help these families by creating a Beach Toy Library or Little Free Sled Library. Just set up a box large enough to hold your items and put up signage to let visitors know they can borrow the toys but should return them after use so other kids can enjoy the library later.
Are These Projects Legal?
Overall, it is legal to put most Little Free Projects in your yard, except for community fridges, which are subject to state and local food-handling rules if cooked food is provided. That being said, The Atlantic reports that some county, city, and HOA rules may prohibit any free project, so always check your local ordinances and homeowners' association bylaws before installing one.
For zoning rules, you may be able to circumvent these by applying for a permit first. As for homeowners associations, the Little Free Library has a section of its website dedicated to convincing your HOA to allow libraries.
While food pantries are legal in most areas since they involve sharing nonperishable items, some areas have laws against feeding people experiencing homelessness or houselessness. In this case, you can still supply toiletries and paper goods even if you cannot include food in your pantry.
Do You Need Insurance?
Typically, you don't need insurance to install a community donation box on your property. However, if you have homeowners insurance, this can help protect you if someone gets hurt while accessing your donation space. As always, community fridges are more complicated than the rest of these community resources, as many areas require owners to obtain liability insurance to operate a community fridge.
What Kind of Investment Is Required?
For most Little Free Projects, the only investment is constructing the structure, installing it in your yard, and maintaining it. You may add your own supplies, but many of these resources will be filled up by helpful neighbors.
If you have a Little Free Library, you may want to check the books here and there to ensure no one puts in anything inappropriate for children. On the other hand, a beach or snow toy library could be a bit expensive in the long run, as they will likely require regular refilling since people may neglect to return their loans.
Some projects require more work than others. A puppy stop may only require adding water to the dog bowl every morning, but a free garden requires a substantial time investment, as you must grow and maintain the plants. Even if you're not the only one doing the growing, a plant stand will typically require a lot of cleaning to remove plant refuse and dirt piles.
Community fridges and pantries take a lot of work because you must keep these areas clean and empty out spoiled or expired foods. Some municipalities even require volunteers to be present at community fridges to accept cooked food donations.
Do your research to ensure you have the time, materials, and money to keep your project operating safely and smoothly.
How to Build a Little Free Project
Unsurprisingly, the precise structure will vary based on what type of project you have in mind. For a seed library, a repurposed medicine cabinet could suffice, but you'll need something bigger for a Little Free Library, and you'll need a large dresser, cabinet, or wardrobe if you plan to operate a community closet.
If you're not the craftiest person, you can always use an official Little Free Library kit to construct a structure to hold food, toiletries, nonperishables, DVDs, plants, or needlework supplies. You can also buy an official Free Blockbuster "franchise" online. Plant stands can be made from a pallet or a shoe holder large enough to store pots. A repurposed kitchen cabinet can be suitable for larger projects since it can hold books, clothes, nonperishable foods, toiletries, pet supplies, DVDs, and more.
Little Free Gardens can be built in any gardening container, but the Little Free Garden website recommends that newbies start with a 12-inch-deep, raised-bed planter made from untreated cedar in a 4-by-2-foot rectangle.
Whatever the structure, the decoration is up to you. These projects can be painted or shaped like a Tardis from Doctor Who, a classic red schoolhouse, a flower-covered work of art, or anything else you can imagine.
Where to Put Your Structure
It's just as important to consider where to place your project as it is to choose a suitable structure. Put the structure in an accessible area with plenty of foot traffic but avoid blocking traffic on the street or sidewalk. You'll also want to ensure that people with disabilities are able to locate and access the structure, so avoiding stairways or steep inclines would be best.
Many projects also require you to consider the weather when deciding on a location. Community fridges should be protected from snow and direct sun. Whenever possible, food pantries located in hot areas should be placed under a shade structure and should face north or east to protect the food inside. Similarly, a plant stand should get some sun but not so much that young, delicate plants could be harmed by excess heat.
Registering Your Project
Not all of these projects need to be registered online, and there are not organizations that handle many of these donation centers. Whenever possible, though, it can be beneficial to register your creation with the associated organization to help increase the number of visitors you attract. We recommend registering: