Raided On the Street and Debated at City Hall, Times are Tough For Dallas' Little Free Libraries

Thieves tore the metal handle from this little free library in East Dallas.EXPAND
Thieves tore the metal handle from this little free library in East Dallas.
Joe Pappalardo

Last week, a woman walking her dog in the Ash Creek neighborhood of northeast Dallas noticed something amiss — all of the books were missing from the curbside Little Free Library box. 

The neighborhood quickly rallied. "She called another neighbor who drove around to check the other LFLs in our neighborhood," says Brad Boling, president of the Alger Park-Ash Creek Neighborhood Association. "He found another on the same street, further down, was empty as well."

These two libraries had been set up by a local group, Literacy Instruction for Texas, last November. Like most take-a-book, leave-a-book style boxes you find across the city, it held a mix of children's books and a few paperback potboilers.  

As it turns out, according to Boling, this is not the only time Little Free Libraries in East Dallas have been hit. Across Peavy Road, hoodlums last week cleaned out other book boxes and tore off at least one metal handle, shaped like a rocket.  

It's as petty as petty crime gets. "No one saw anything and no reports were filed," Boling says. "It is saddening to see this happen. Someone is either desperate for quick cash or playing an insane prank."

While times have been tough for Little Free Libraries in Dallas on the street level, they are getting attention from City Hall as well.  The full City Council will soon consider a proposal to regulate these little boxes. As of now, they are covered by routine zoning laws. But a City Council committee approved a measure that sets specific standards: The libraries are not to be taller than 5 feet and no deeper than 18 inches. The little structures have to be 10 feet away from a neighbor's property line.

Some City Council members have indicated they won't support the ordinance, but City Councilman Phil Kingston argues that the city has to pass it to prove that the city doesn't regulate Little Free Libraries.

Huh?

"Early last year, a very socially maladjusted person began complaining to Code [Compliance] about a Little Free Library in N.E. Dallas," he wrote on his Facebook page this week. "Because code is not allowed to tell citizens to stop being jerks, these complaints resulted in an extraordinarily detailed investigation."

The investigation's database log report is here, which chronicles months of site visits, paperwork, photography, rulings and revisits. The complaining citizen described the Little Free Library as "illegal outside storage [that] continues for months; now these gross bookshelves are all wet and moldy."At the end of the investigation, the city took no action.

"Thank a whining jerk for this incredible waste of city staff's time," Kingston wrote. "Because staff, smartly, wanted to avoid this kind of waste of resources in the future, they sought council's sage advice on how to approach regulating LFLs (Little Free Libraries.) We basically said, 'don't.'"

He says the ordinance that the council will consider "essentially doesn't regulate LFLs but also makes it clear that code doesn't have to have a 100-page file to come to that conclusion." 

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This makes its own kind of City Hall sense, but on the street this looks like meddling. After all, the ordinance says directly what can and can't be built, and violations will have to be investigated and resolved. It's a perfect weapon for those who want to shut down a Little Free Library. And, as The Dallas Morning News points out, some existing Little Free Libraries don't meet this new code, opening up the idea that they could be torn down. 

Boling calls the idea of specific regulations "ridiculous" for the council to consider. "I can’t believe the city is wasting its time and man-hours on this subject," Boling says. 

He doesn't see a risk from the city or complaints from neighbors. "Ours seem to be in compliance with the proposed size limitations," he says. "And we have had nothing but praise about the libraries in Alger Park-Ash Creek."

In Ash Creek, the roadside experiments in community building represented by the tiny boxes live on. "Neighbors have already stepped up and refilled the two libraries," Boling says. "I have a full box of donated books to use in the future. And to share with our neighbors across Peavy, who experienced the same thing last week."

But the lesson has been learned: Do something to connect with your neighbors, and that effort will be exposed to meddling from low and high places. "At the moment, no new security or procedures are in place," Boling says. "We continue to monitor the libraries on daily basis."


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