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Sarah Johnson and the big impact of little libraries

Sarah Johnson and the big impact of little libraries

Brightly-colored cabinets are popping up around the City of Newberry, and if they pique your curiosity, there is a historical precedent for that. These little libraries have quite a legacy. Before libraries existed as we now know them, before the donations of Andrew Carnegie and the yeoman work of post-Civil War women’s auxiliary groups, gentlemen of note made sure their houses included cabinets of curiosity. These cabinets displayed items of import and value, like rare maps, weapons, pottery, game trophies and, of course, one’s collection of books.  Sometimes they loaned out books, or shared maps, etc. with trusted friends. Books were expensive, but people needed access to books. They shared.

Sharing and making an impact was on the mind of aspiring educator and Newberry College Muller Scholar Sarah Johnson. For her Muller Scholar application, she proposed a sustainable project that would impact literacy in Newberry, specifically focusing on literacy for ages 3 to 13.

“After doing research about literacy, I noticed a few of the main problems were decreased literacy rates over the summer due to less exposure to books and lack of book exposure in lower income households,” she said. “This project was designed to address both problems by giving children better access to books in their neighborhoods.”

Part of Johnson’s research included a 2013 Brookings Institute study that found children from low socioeconomic backgrounds will be exposed to 30 million fewer words by age 5 than their counterparts from more affluent families. The causes and potential solutions for this problem are many, but for Johnson and those with the Little Library Project, the role was simple: provide books for these children by removing financial and transportation barriers. Support these communities so that parents, and adult stakeholders have more opportunity to read to, and with, children.  

That noble goal comes to fruition among the details, however. Ask any librarian, and he or she can tell of the hours it takes to oversee and maintain a collection. This project will require donations of time, money and talent. From the idea stage until now, this project was funded by donations of supplies, time, or money, from area businesses, from Rotary Club members and from professors and college supporters, to mention a few. 

Johnson proposed a self-sustaining program that will depend upon the faithfulness and generosity of library stewards, people who check the little libraries every 2-3 weeks to make sure they are stocked with books and in good working order. They also will have time to interact with library users. Since Rotary Club does philanthropic work on behalf of literacy and reading, they agreed to partner as steward for two of the three little libraries.

This community partnership on behalf of literacy has deep roots in America as we currently know it. In the decades after the Civil War, women’s groups formed to promote self-improvement, self-education and reading, especially in the northeastern United States. The women pooled resources and shared books among each other, and in so doing formed public libraries, some of which were traveling or mobile libraries to take books to the people. 

Though Sarah Johnson may not be aware of the legacy of the Founding Mothers of Libraries who made ready a landscape for Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy and founding of libraries throughout the United States, her work as a Muller Fellow for Newberry College also promotes community, self-improvement and self-empowerment. 

She, members of the Literacy Council, members of the Newberry Rotary Club and library stewards who will check on the libraries every few weeks to update the collections of books and maintain them, came together some 150 years later to advance the cause of libraries by founding the Little Libraries. The cabinets, decorated by art classes from Gallman, Boundary Street and Newberry Elementary Schools were built large, so there is ample room for these little library collections to grow.

This project may not be making history, but it is certainly carries on this mission and tradition.   Want to be part of this movement?  Donations are needed and are accepted at any of the three free libraries. For larger book donations, please contact The Newberry Literacy Council and arrange to leave the books there for distribution.  Johnson said the libraries were built large on purpose so there is room for donations and for readers to have a variety of genres and materials from which to choose.

Those choices can help enrich lives around the Grant Homes, and Newberry Arms areas as well as near the Muller Center at Newberry College, as books are used to open doors and windows of possibility and dreams.

Little libraries, public libraries, school libraries, our South Carolina State Public Library—they are fingers on the same hand. Libraries collect expensive resources, store and share them in a way that benefits a community. It’s a handful of people who see a community need and are coming together. They are addressing the need one book at a time.

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