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Libros Libres Combats Inadvertent Economic Segregation of National Little Free Libraries

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The Little Free Library project has established a national reputation for encouraging local literacy among kids. The Wisconsin-based group was founded in 2009 and encourages neighborhoods to set up small boxes of books for kids to read and return. The idea of the Little Free Library project is that people could set a cardboard box full of books in their front yards at no cost to themselves. It's an entirely community run effort and it relies on the honor system, telling borrowers to "take a book, leave a book."

Yet in poorer neighborhoods where kids often struggle to find books in the home, residents are less likely to slap a box of books in their front yard (and they're even less likelier to actually purchase one of the Little Free Library custom made book containers, which can run upward of $1,000).

In classic, albeit inadvertent, economic segregation, most of the Little Free Libraries in Dallas consequently ended up in more affluent suburb areas -- where they were much less needed. It's something Dallas hoped to combat this summer by launching its own Little Free Library chapter, Libros Libres.

The Libros Libres seeks to one-up the Little Free Library boxes, creating not just more elaborate book containers. The Libros Libres partnership between Dallas Public Libraries, BC Workshop, and Big Thought envisions a unique recreational area around each little library, complete with seating arrangements and landscaping.

Isaac Cohen of BC Workshop, who helped design the west and south Dallas libraries, says the initiative is intended not just as a literacy effort. "It provides more than free access to books, it provides a community gathering space," he says. "It's an icon that people associate with both literacy and with their neighborhood."

Because of the emphasis on design and community collaboration, Libros Libres is not purely the educational initiative that is Little Free Library. Though it may be touted as such, Libros Libres is as much a cultural initiative as it is an educational one.

At roughly $200 a pop, the Libros Libres project is hardly libres. But organizers offered significant financial reimbursements for community members who volunteered to build their own Libros Libres. And while that's not as cheap as the cardboard box-o-books, it's certainly nicer and isn't attached to the hefty price tag of the ornate Little Free Library boxes (at which Cohen scoffed, saying they looked like little more than birdhouses).

The project worked with DISD's Imagine 2020 initiative to target low-income neighborhoods that typically also have had low literacy rates. They have opened 10 Libros Libres in West Dallas and the Fair Park neighborhood and intend to open five more before the summer ends. But for now, the Libros Libres initiative is just a pilot project and there are no concrete plans to expand beyond the 15 locations. "We looked at areas where literacy was a primary concern," says Cohen. "One of the goals was that we would come together and disperse to sites to build those libraries. We needed to focus that."

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