Little Free Libraries Are Turning Into Ground Zero for Religious Proselytizing

This is a guest post by James Zimmerman. He’s the author of the book Deliverance at Hand!: The Redemption of a Devout Jehovah’s Witness.

Have you seen a Little Free Library in your neighborhood?

Little Free Libraries (LFLs) began in 2009 when Hudson, Wisconsin resident Todd Bol constructed one as a tribute to his later mother, a schoolteacher who loved books. They are, exactly as their name implies, small structures stocked with books that visitors are free to peruse or take. They can also donate their own books to the collection. By November of 2016, there were over 50,000 such libraries in over 70 countries, including at least one in every U.S. state.

I built and installed one in the fall of 2015. Purchasing an official charter sign for my library entitled me to a few benefits, including access to an online discussion board for LFL owners (or “stewards,” as we prefer to call ourselves).

One thing I immediately noticed in these discussions was the prevalence of stewards wondering what they should do with unwanted religious material.

It was a constant source of irritation among patrons; no one seemed immune to taking a look inside their LFL to add to or straighten out the books, only to find that some proselytizers had stopped by and dumped off books, magazine, pamphlets, tracts, or leaflets advertising their faith. One steward said that, in a single day, he had to remove nine religious books, six religious pamphlets, and three bibles.

No one who commented on the post seemed to find this unusual.

Another steward said that, when arriving home one evening, she noticed all the books in her LFL had been taken and replaced with a handful of books and a tract from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Simply removing the items doesn’t solve the problem, because new ones keep coming. One commenter on the discussion board called it an “endless stream of religious flyers and books,” and others noted that some religious sects leave material every day.

These online discussions weren’t simply to vent about the problem, They were also meant to solicit ideas about what to do. How could everyone stop the flow of religious paraphernalia?

One steward posted a picture of three copies of The Book of Mormon sitting in his library and asked for opinions on whether or not he should throw them out. Nearly everyone said he should toss them. The few who didn’t suggested leaving in no more than one at a time.

When one commenter asked why so many advocated for the removal of the items, another responded by saying that some religious viewpoints promoted divisive and intolerant ideas. Another said she didn’t want her library becoming a recruiting station for any religious groups. A third said she allowed books about religion, but not ones that seemed too “recruit-y.”

Some have suggested putting up signs saying “No Soliciting.” But others have rightly pointed out that Jehovah’s Witnesses (and others) don’t see what they do as soliciting. It wouldn’t help! Additionally, any signs might also cover a significant portion of a library’s door or artwork — and it would essentially make that LFL a target for the very people the steward was trying to discourage.

There was another interesting point brought up by one steward: The person said this wouldn’t be an issue if the religious books were circulating, since that would at least suggest a level of interest, but the Watchtower and Mormon “literature” languishes for months at a time. In a way, they’re taking up space for books people actually want to read!

The most charitable comments suggested leaving in some of the religious material since some passers-by might be genuinely curious about a religion. They might appreciate the option of learning more about these faiths without the pressure of speaking with believers who knock at their doors.

The funniest comment came from a steward who explained how her husband, tired of culling their LFL of religious tracts, approached the neighbor who constantly left them there. He offered to build her a “Christian LFL” so she could fill with the religious propaganda.

The neighbor said the Lord hadn’t directed her to do that.

I recently posted a question asking if any of the stewards considered removing such books — or installing a sign forbidding their placement in the first place — to be a form of censorship. To my delight, no one felt that way. “It’s your LFL, so do what you want,” was the general consensus. “Get them out — make room for better books,” and “just be sure to recycle,” were other themes.

One commenter helpfully added, “It’s not censorship, it’s curating,” and explained that even public libraries with far more shelving space were compelled to decline adding some books to their collection, while removing others that had become out of date or were, perhaps, never popular.

Why do religious groups drop off so much of their literature at places like LFLs? After all, it’s not like they’re getting any donations that way. And if a borrower is interested in the faith, there’s no good way to follow up from either side.

Having been a Jehovah’s Witness, I can at least explain their rationale.

In order to have any status as a Witness — indeed, in order to even be counted as a Witness by the Watchtower Society (their governing organization) — members must spend time each month proselytizing. To track members’ activity, Witnesses complete a Field Service Report each month. This report, a small piece of paper that is deposited in a dedicated box at the Witnesses’ Kingdom Halls, has a place where members list the number of hours they spent that month knocking on doors. There are also spots to enter in the number of magazines, books, and brochures dropped off for people to read.

The hours are the important thing; you have to record at least something in that spot. But it also looks pretty weak if you spent, say, 12 hours knocking on doors but didn’t distribute any literature.

You probably see where this is going.

When I was a Witness, I could knock on 20 doors in one outing. Perhaps 18 of them wouldn’t be home and the other two would say they weren’t interested… or I could drive around the city leaving magazines at bus stops, laundromats, library book drops, and apartment lobbies. Since it took me about an hour regardless of which option I chose, I always preferred the latter one. I didn’t have to talk to anyone, and I placed a lot more literature.

Either way, I knew God — or, I should say, the Watchtower Society — was pleased with my hard work.

Now, thanks to the Little Free Libraries, it’s a little bit easier to be a Witness.

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