Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 23, 2014

Unlikely partners bring 'little lending libraries' to GT region

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Little libraries are popping up in the Grand Traverse region, thanks to a partnership between nonprofit groups, a Grand Traverse County woman and Michigan Department of Corrections inmates.

The libraries are nothing more than waterproof boxes with Plexiglas doors stuffed full of children’s books. Many are mounted on posts outside schools and parks and they work on the same honors-system all libraries follow: take a book, read a book, return a book.

Barb Lemcool saw the payoff to these “little lending libraries” when she looked across her front lawn one morning last summer. A man and his two children — one in a wagon and one riding a Big Wheel -- selected a book from the library outside her home, plopped down on a red wooden bench and started reading.

“It was the reason I put the library out there in the first place. Kids need to be encouraged to read, “ Lemcool said. “Reading opens many, many doors for them.”

Barb Lemcool, the wife of Grand Traverse County Commissioner Herb Lemcool, learned about lending libraries after the Kalkaska County Community Collaborative introduced them in Kalkaska County. Barb Lemcool decided to spend some of the thousands of dollars her late mother-in-law left for local libraries on a similar project in Grand Traverse County.

She bought supplies to build libraries and urged nonprofit reading groups to donate 300 books to the effort. She next followed the lead of the Kalkaska community collaborative and enlisted Pugsley Correctional Facility inmates to turn the supplies into 16 little libraries.

Both library construction projects fit well with the prison’s job readiness training program, which teaches inmates skills they use to find employment after their release, said Rick Sheppard, Pugsley’s building trades instructor.

““It’s not just a matter of playing in shop class,” Sheppard said. “We do an awful lot to give them quality training.”

The libraries for Grand Traverse County were built following a uniform set of plans. The Kalkaska County libraries were developed by prisoners using their own plans. These libraries were fashioned in to shapes like a semi-truck, a log cabin and a train caboose.

Ranae McCauley, former collaborative coordinator for the Kalkaska County Community Collaborative, said the finished libraries are impressive.

“They really put their hearts in to making them nice,” she said.

Most of the libraries built with Barb Lemcool’s donated material went to Traverse City Area Public Schools buildings. Students painted and finished them before they were mounted outside.

Two of the Kalkaska County libraries are up now, and four more will go up this spring after the community collaborative finds “ambassadors” to take care of them. In that sense, McCauley said, the libraries are as much about strengthening communities as they are about improving literacy.

Barb Lemcool thinks along the same lines about the library in her front yard.

“Even though it is in my yard, it belongs to all the kids in the neighborhood, and I think they take some real pride in it,” she said.