A Placemaking Journal

The Perils of Whimsy: Bookshelf reveals community dysfunction

Spoiler alert: This is not breaking news. The story’s actually been at least temporarily resolved. Think of it more as a post-game analysis.

Little Free Libraries — resident-initiated community bookshelves — are an increasingly popular tactic for bringing neighbors together through their shared love of browsing and reading books. Unless you live in Leawood, Kansas, that is, where the front-yard kiosk of 9 year old resident Spencer Collins was the subject of a citation for being what the city considered an illegal accessory structure.

I’m hard pressed to explain how the presence of a bookshelf on a stool imposes some threat to community health, safety or welfare. That’s what makes it so easy to write this story off as just one more example of satire-worthy municipal stumbling. And why not? If nothing else, it plugs nicely into the de rigueur narrative of government overreach.

See? The problem is them. The man. It’s not us. We’re the victims here.

Spencer Collins, destroying his community.

Spencer Collins, destroying his community.

But here’s the thing: It wasn’t overzealous code enforcement — cruising neighborhoods itching for petty infractions — but, rather, two resident complaints that prompted the city to act.

Hmmmmmm. That’s something altogether different now, isn’t it? Suddenly it’s less a story about overreaching government and more one of responsive government. Less an instance where the problem is them. More an instance where the problem is us.

What ultimately takes the spotlight is not buffoonery but brokenness. Not as it relates to systems (in this case, the system worked as intended) but as it relates to people and the relationships that define us.

Is this really what we’ve come to?

What is our present state of community when people a) feel the need to take issue with an innocuous flight of whimsy on private property; and b) take their concerns directly to the top level of enforcement before initiating even a single conversation with their neighbor? Maybe these quotes, taken from news accounts, provide a sense:

“Why do we pay taxes for libraries and have those boxes on our streets? In a blighted area? Sure, put them everywhere. We’re not a poor area. We don’t need them.”

“First, there was just a library. Then, a bench was placed next to it. I think people were concerned there would be more and more stuff at their front yard.”

Such attitudes are corrosive, plain and simple. NIMBY nonsense run amok. Clueless of the fact that the neighbor you fail to acknowledge today, or report to the authorities without so much as a chat at the fence, is the stranger with little inclination to help you tomorrow. That’s not community, and it’s certainly not what we need. What we need is to foster introductions and the conversations that follow so we can better grow and thrive together.

Little Free Libraries can do that. A lot of things can, and I hope Leawood, Kansas, looks into a few. However, while this post has in some ways been a defense of city officials, there remain indicators that those same officials may grow increasingly complicit in the larger problem. Consider:

The strict code, Lambers said, is intended to prevent detached structures, including Spencer’s library, from degrading property values.

Some members of the council suggested that certain guidelines — like requiring a Little Free Library to be the same color as the house in front of which it sits — could help ease concerns about aesthetics and home values.

There are two fundamental errors inherent in these sentiments. The first is that detached structures degrade property values. Properly managed, that’s an assertion that’s simply not true — today and, as our cities increasingly come to reflect the economics and lifestyle preferences of changing demographics, even more so tomorrow. Such ordinances do not protect property values. What they protect is our natural and pervasive desire to avoid change.

The second error is that you add value to whimsy by making it more uniform and predictable when that’s actually the exact opposite of what happens. A Little Free Library, or any other inspired creative expression, is like a flower growing through a crack in the sidewalk. You don’t make it more palatable by camouflaging it as concrete.

So, where to now?

“City leadership” should provide exactly that: Leadership. Sometimes that means acting boldly, even if such action runs contrary to certain resident sentiments (as it invariably always does). The quotes above suggest officials searching for a way to please everyone, and using a defense of a no-longer-relevant status quo to do it. It doesn’t work.

Leadership is not about pleasing all of the people all of the time. In its purest sense, it’s about empowerment. Doing the heavy, perhaps unpopular, lifting to ensure your constituents are afforded the best possible tools for taking on an uncertain future. Little Free Libraries are one small part of that imperative. Not because they’ll save the world but because they bring people together. And people together endure more successfully than people apart.

There’s more than a few books on the matter, if you’re interested. Maybe Spencer’s got a couple of them there on the shelf.

Scott Doyon

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