A research project for Susan Deans’ master’s degree program turned into a personal tribute to her mother’s memory when she applied her knowledge to distribute books to children.
She didn’t realize how many other people, near and far, would contribute to the project.
Deans, with more than 20 years of experience in early childhood education, works at the Child Care Resource and Referral agency housed at Southeastern Community College. While pursuing a master’s degree in education at UNC-Wilmington, she chose as her research topic the early literacy activities of low-income families in Columbus County.
At the beginning of the project, parents were interviewed to assess how much they encouraged their young children to read. Deans then taught a series of “book-sharing skills” and measured the “changes in behavior in terms of sharing books with children.”
Deans concluded that, “Families need more convenient access to books for children.”
More than research was at work, however. Deans wanted to honor her mother, Peggy Blackmon, who died earlier this year. “My mother loved to read,” she said. “When we were young, she was always encouraging us to read and learn.”
A sharing strategy
Although the county has six public libraries and the Columbus County Partnership for Children maintains the Smart Start Early Learning Facility, Deans wanted to provide an additional option especially targeted to low-income families.
She decided to align with the Little Free Libraries program begun in Wisconsin in 2009. Inspired by philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie and by the informal book exchanges inside many businesses, the grassroots movement has now established over 50,000 official library boxes in the United States.
Deans said, “The premise is ‘take a book; leave a book.’ I know a lot of people won’t have a book to leave every single time they take one. The idea is that at some point you pay it forward by leaving a book when you can.
“I know there will be people who will only take books and never leave one. There will be other people who will leave books and never take one, so it’ll balance out. The worst that can happen is that some children get books, and that’s good.”
She set out to establish Little Free Libraries at two locations that she knew many low-income families visited: the Columbus County Health Department and the DREAM Center, both in Whiteville.
With permission from the directors of both places, Deans found two gifted carpenters to construct the libraries. Fred Senter built small, weather-resistant boxes with glass doors to stand on posts outside, and Scott Kelly built an indoor bookcase for the health department’s front waiting room. Kelly surprised Dean by designing the bookcase to look like a fanciful, long-necked green dinosaur with a pointy tail. Earlene Stacker painted the dinosaur.
Deans described the creation as “not just a bookcase. You have to see it. It’s really cool.”
Support from friends and neighbors
Deans conducted a social media campaign during the summer that netted enough used and new book donations to fill all three libraries, with backups for replenishment.
Deans received donations from the Whiteville Juniorettes and from individuals whose children had outgrown the books on their shelves. The Early Childhood Educators’ Club at SCC not only collected books for Deans’ libraries but even wrote some original literature for her.
“There’s a body of research,” she said, “showing that children’s level of engagement with books increases when the books’ content is culturally relevant.” So Deans’ fellow early education students created stories set at Lake Waccamaw, the N.C. Museum of Science at Whiteville and a Waccamaw Siouan Pow-Wow.
“The day we set up the libraries at the health department just happened to be dental clinic day,” Deans said. The children awaiting appointments were enthusiastic about the books.
The health department’s security officer, Sgt. Morton, said, “The books are a good thing. Otherwise a lot of the kids would be running around or playing with their parents’ cell phones. This gives them something to do.”
As official “steward” of the three libraries, Deans visits them periodically and keeps them in good condition.
Whiteville speech-language pathologist Carla Brown reached out to Deans to find out how she could set up a library. Instead of having a box custom-built, Brown ordered a ready-made box from the Little Free Libraries website. She will install it at her business around the end of December or beginning of January.
“Very unexpected” help
There was an application process to become part of the official nationwide network of Little Free Libraries. Deans completed the application and made the additional request that her charter fee of $45 per library be waived.
In support of her grant request, she explained that she had carried out her work as a student, she had already run into some expenses to acquire the boxes, and she was serving low-income children.
“They read my grant application, looked at the demographics of the community, approved of my strategy and waived the fees,” she said.
“Unbeknownst to me, they also sent the story to Whoopi Goldberg and she liked it.” Goldberg announced that Little Free Libraries were at the top of her list of “favorite things.”
Goldberg’s interest led to a new wave of support. On Nov. 14, while recording “The View,” Goldberg’s co-stars and audience celebrated her birthday by collecting books and loading them into five ready-made libraries to be shipped to locations around the United States.
One of the five communities chosen to receive Goldberg’s birthday presents was Whiteville.
The other libraries went to Los Angeles, Calif.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Jersey City, N.J.; and Navarre, Fla. Deans said, “You can watch a video of the presentation online at www.littlefreelibrary.org. Look for ‘Whoopi’s birthday.’”
The Goldberg library box, with its supply of books, will be installed at SCC. “There are several Little Free Libraries within Whiteville’s city limits now,” she said. “I’d like to see this go out into the county.”
The number of Little Free Libraries that will yet spring up, Deans said, is based on “where the community sees a need. It just takes one person who’s committed and willing to install and pay for a box. After that, it’s easy to maintain.”
Deans received her master’s degree on Saturday, Dec. 10. The following Wednesday after work, she was dropping by the health department to straighten out books as she frequently does.
Security guard Sgt. Morton told her that he now often observes parents reading to their preschoolers while older children read to themselves. Morton has stepped in at times to help children who were bored find a good book. The shelves hold books for a wide range of reading abilities and tastes, with a few in Spanish at present.
As books are removed and replaced, the selection will change. Deans has some replacements at home from her summer book drive, but she said, “I don’t have an infinite supply of books.” She encourages people to use the locations she has set up and help keep them going.
“I want people to feel comfortable to take a book or leave a book,” Deans said. “This needs to belong to the community now, not to me.”
John Deans digs a hole for a lending library.
Earlene Stacker and Scott Kelly