Like birds approaching an unfamiliar birdhouse, so do people dance around the wooden box in the front yard of Darla Haney’s Vienna home.
Haney has become accustomed to the strange choreography people perform on her lawn, just as she has come to recognize the tentative knock on her door.
“There’s something about it that you can tell what they want,” Haney said. “People come and ask, ‘Can I really take a book?’”
Yes, please do. The cause of the curiosity and confusion, also known as a Little Free Library, is filled with books free for the taking.
Haney’s library represents just one branch of an international phenomenon. The movement began in the Midwest in 2009, when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wis., built a schoolhouse library as a tribute to his mother, who had been a teacher.
Soon the idea started catching on, first in Wisconsin and then around the world. In 2012, Bol and co-founder Rich Brooks officially started the Little Free Library nonprofit to support the rapidly expanding enterprise.
At first, Bol and Brooks set the goal of seeing 2,510 Little Free Libraries dot the map, topping the 2,509 public libraries supported by businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. By August 2012, they blew past that total.
By the start of 2014, the libraries numbered more than 15,000 in places as far-flung as Iceland and Uganda.
Little Free Libraries have started to blossom in Fairfax County in the past year. Right now, 11 libraries are listed on the organization’s Google Map index, including the gable-roofed library planted on a post beside Haney’s driveway on Occidental Drive in Vienna.
One of the earliest libraries in the county sits in the Mosby Woods neighborhood in Fairfax. The Mosby Woods Community Association installed the blue double-decker library in front of the neighborhood pool in May 2013, said Bob Reinsel, vice president of the group.
The library immediately took off with neighbors. While some worried its popularity would wane as the weather turned cold, the library has maintained a constant turnover of books, Reinsel said.
“It started out as a conversation piece,” Reinsel said. “But after people ask about it, then they start to use it.”
Haney also has seen a steady stream of readers since opening her branch last October.
The library came as a birthday present from her husband, Michael Hubble, and their children Helen and Ben. The family purchased the wooden house from the Little Free Library nonprofit, which sells pre-built libraries and building kits through its website. Ambitious aspiring librarians also can build their own library and register it as an official part of the global network for a $35 fee.
As soon as the book box went up, Haney watched people flock to it.
“As people walk by, you see them swerve over,” Haney said. “It’s been amazingly popular.”
Retired teacher Ann Lattanzi runs her own Little Free Library outside her home on Saint Roman Drive in Vienna. The library went up in September 2013, and Lattanzi said the youngest visitors helped the project take off.
“The children came first,” Lattanzi said. “They have less inhibition about it. I think adults are a little more hesitant, but they’ve come around.”
Children’s books have remained the most popular items, Lattanzi said. Kids from the neighborhood monitor the stock, and she often hears this call: “You need more books in there, Mrs. L!”
People do not have to return books or even use the “take a book, leave a book” principle at Little Free Libraries. Still, neighbors often donate books of their own, according to the county’s library stewards.
Each library’s caretaker minds their charge differently. While Lattanzi frequently replenishes her library with bookstore purchases or personal donations, Haney only occasionally contributes her own books.
“We put in the books initially, but now? No,” Haney said. “It’s random stuff from all over the neighborhood. Sometimes it’s so full that you couldn’t fit anything in if you wanted to.”
Haney has been surprised what will fly off the shelves, from pulp mysteries to foreign policy tomes.
“You can’t predict what’s going to work,” Haney said. “People love that experience with randomly connecting with a book, and these libraries bring that gift to the community.”