February 12, 2015
Little Free Library deemed too commercial for Shreveport
by Josh Cohen
Shreveport, LA was a peaceful town, a good town. The kind of All-American community where folks smiled at you when you walk down the street, where you kept your doors unlocked at night, knowing your neighbors were doing the same, and your neighbors were upstanding, decent people. Then one day, one of those neighbors did a not-so-decent thing, a maleficent thing that threatened the way Shreveporters’ lives as they knew them. To preserve the peacefulness and goodness, it became necessary to take action.
And that’s how the Metropolitan Planning Commission of Louisiana’s third-largest city came to shut down a Little Free Library, per the Shreveport Times.
Now if something called a “Little Free Library” doesn’t sound like a communal menace to society to you yet, just take a gander at how littlefreelibrary.org defines it:
It’s a “take a book, return a book” gathering place where neighbors share their favorite literature and stories. In its most basic form, a Little Free Library is a box full of books where anyone may stop by and pick up a book (or two) and bring back another book to share. You can, too!
So yeah, communal menace maybe isn’t exactly right. Grassroots nonprofit advocating the joys and importance of reading in a way that creates greater accessibility to books is more like it. They range in shape and design from the simple to the Wes Andersonian. They are adorable and not at all threatening.
But Shreveport isn’t the first place to look at a Little Free Library and see a pernicious intrusion to be eradicated.
Two years ago, we reported on Whitefish Bay, WI and its Village Board’s decision to banish Little Free Libraries from curbside locations to backyards only—even though the only Little Free Library active in Whitefish Bay at the time was in front of a local church.
From the Whitefish Bay Patch, an explanation:
“There seems to be no end to the silliness that we think of where these things can go,” Village Manager Patrick DeGrave said at Monday night’s Village Board meeting. “Not just in the size, shape, color or oddities, but what can go in there? You’re not going to regulate what goes inside.”
With the voice of a thousand Helen Lovejoys crying out for somebody to please think of the children, Village Manager DeGrave took a benevolent endeavor and rendered it impotent out of fear of “oddities” and what might be inserted, a fear that 1. was not at all based in any issues that had arisen with the Whitefish Bay Little Free Library, and 2. reads like some sort of perverse literary don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy; you can exchange all the books you want, just don’t be doing it out there on the street all public-like.
The Shreveport ban was more black-and-white than Whitefish Bay’s. Though two more Little Free Libraries exist in the city, the one the zoning committee ruled on, located on Ricky and Teresa Edgerton’s front lawn, was ordered to outright cease operations. The reason was somehow stranger than the justification Whitefish Bay had: Shreveport codes dictate that a library may only be located within a commercially-zoned area.
Regardless of the nature of the complaint against the Little Free Library in question (that’s not public information at this time), enforcing the law in this way shows either a fundamental misunderstanding of what commerce is, a willful ignorance of the intent of a preexisting statue, or both.
No money is exchanged for goods or services a Little Free Library, so restricting them to commercial zones makes no sense. That code clearly exists to prevent the government from building a traditional public library smack dab in the middle of a residential area, thus driving more traffic through what would otherwise be an ordinary neighborhood. That’s not what Little Free Libraries are doing in this case, either.
What we have here is a law written as a limitation on local government’s power getting twisted into governmental overreach for reasons that are trivial at best, but more likely are nonexistent. That viewpoint has champions in the affected community as well. The Shreveport Times’ editorial board called out the Metropolitan Planning Committee for “the apparently random manner in which these types of zoning laws appear to be enforced”:
Blighted property is probably the most obvious and pervasive standout violator in our city. We have laws against it, yet such properties exist. In the light of such a problem as this, little free libraries certainly are not a problem that the city of Shreveport should be worrying about spending its zoning code enforcement time and money on. We think that attention is sorely needed elsewhere. And in the end the whole city would be better for it, too.
There are supporters in Shreveport for the Little Free Library, as there should be—it is a good, decent enterprise, and a wholly inoffensive one at that. On Tuesday, the Shreveport Times reported the city council passed a resolution temporarily allowing Little Free Libraries until the zoning codes could be updated accordingly. That’s great news, and here’s hoping the laws are changed with similar haste, so that the Metropolitan Planning Committee can get back to its true intent and fix actual problems rather than fight charitable efforts to promote reading.
Josh Cohen is a contributing editor for MobyLives.