Free library boxes throughout Northside help promote literacy


Photo by Erika Fleegle

 A free library box in the garden next to Northside Common Ministries in California-Kirkbride is on of several such boxes in the Northside.

By Erika Fleegle

In a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” sort of way, the small box situated in the garden next to Northside Common Ministries in California-Kirkbride could be mistaken for a birdhouse. But upon closer inspection, the brightly-painted box houses books, not birds. This little free library, along with others cropping up around the city, is just one way locals are improving literacy in the community.

Debra Smallwood, the project’s pioneer, had been working with students from Brashear High School’s Be There Ambassadors, part of the United Way’s “Be There” campaign promoting academic excellence through great attendance. The students were looking for more ways to get involved in their community, but weren’t sure how. While walking through her neighborhood, Smallwood found an answer.

“After seeing a library box in the Mexican War Streets, I went to the construction tech teacher at Brashear and he took on the project of building the libraries in his classes and making it a student project,” she said.

Little free libraries like these are a growing trend in urban areas as the boxes are typically stocked with books of varying genres, which eager readers can take and leave to read at their leisure

Initially, 40 boxes were built, designed by students, and distributed throughout different neighborhoods. All box locations were chosen by businesses and community members who requested a box. Smallwood noted that she has been working with One Northside and the Buhl Foundation to put a box in every Northside neighborhood.

For Smallwood, the most rewarding part of the project, aside from improving literacy within Pittsburgh Public Schools, is the engagement between the students and the community.

“Having the students speak about the project and interact with community members and business owners is inspiring,” she noted. “I love to see the excitement that the students have.”

And it’s not just students who are excited about the little free libraries, community members, business owners and politicians have all showed interest in becoming involved with the project. During a kick-off event at the Mattress Factory, over 700 books were donated. Following that, word-of-mouth alone has brought those numbers up to well over 1,000.

Jay Poliziani, Director of Northside Common Ministries on Brighton Road, has been thrilled so far with the response to the little free library.

“I went into this thinking that no one would ever actually use the library, but that it had great value in providing a visible sign to our neighbors of our organization’s commitment to the community as well as our strong focus on education,” he said, “However, I was pleasantly surprised!”

Poliziani noted that within the first day on site, the library box attracted two readers who took books that interested them. The box is regularly refilled by contacts at the Carnegie Library in Central Northside and the North Hills Library.

Those interested in putting a little free library in their neighborhood should contact Debra Smallwood at

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