In Palmer, an emerald green-painted plywood box filled with books sits beside a willow tree. This tiny library is part of the efforts of Little Free Library, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 2009 with the intention to make books more accessible and spread the love of reading.
It started when its founder Todd Bol, built a schoolhouse model in honor of his mother, a former teacher. Bol then propped his model up on a post and filled it with books, making his Little Free Library the first of thousands to come.
The premise of these libraries is based upon the principle of “Take a book, leave a book.” Anyone can start a Little Free Library; it just takes a location, a structure to hold the books and a few books to put inside. However, the most significant factor that goes into a library is the community.
Nebraska is home to hundreds of Little Free Libraries with libraries in cities like Omaha to rural communities like Brewster. The Little Free Library in Palmer with big white letters on the side reading “Free Books,” is one of the many serving rural areas.
Courtney Salmon, a native in the village of just 472 people, runs the little green library.
Salmon is a preschool and elementary school teacher as well as an avid reader. She opened her library in 2015 when her father-in-law built a dark wooden box with light wood embellishments and double doors. Due to weathering, the old box had to be retired, and Salmon replaced it with the new green pre-made model straight from Little Free Libraries’ store. This library boasts a collection of pre-owned books, both from Salmon and community donations.
“Now, I have many more people donate books than take them,” Salmon said. “I read over 100 books each year, so many of the books are ones my children and I have read and want to pass on. I try to keep a variety on hand.”
Some of the books are chapter books like “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” by Jeff Kinney, classics like “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, fall picture books and other adult selections from authors Maeve Binchy and John Grisham.
Salmon said she reads many of the books that are donated to her library by fellow community members. If a book is not picked up or doesn’t seem to be moving, Salmon trades them in for new ones just a half hour away at The Tattered Book, a used bookstore in Grand Island.
Salmon created her library in memory of her great grandmother. The description of her library on the LFL map reads, “I wanted to share books with my village in honor of my great-grandma, who shared with me her love of reading. I live in her old house and when she died, the garage was filled with boxes of books. Being able to share books with others is like sharing a part of her.”
“Everyone in Palmer used to call my great-grandma ‘Grandma Minnie,’” Salmon said. “She mostly read romance novels, which aren’t my favorite, but she also shared some books with me like Janette Oke and the Lord of the Rings series.”
According to Salmon, Grandma Minnie was known in Palmer for selling Avon products and writing news for the Palmer Journal. She was a lover of receiving packages in the mail- usually books- and crossword puzzles.
“I have fond memories of using her crossword dictionaries to help her out,” Salmon said.
Grandma Minnie died in 2009, but to Salmon, her memory lives on in the community with the Little Free Library in her name. The library was originally just dedicated to Grandma Minnie, but after the death of Salmon’s grandmother Gloria in 2018, the library became dedicated to both of them.
“She was in a book club and shared many books from her club with me in my adulthood,” Salmon said. “We would discuss books she read for her club and she donated many books to my library.”
The impact on Palmer from the Little Free Library has already been significant. Salmon’s library provides community members with a supply of books when their access to the public library is limited.
Palmer’s public library is located inside of Palmer High School. The library is only open during school hours, making it easy to access for students and those who do not work, but for all others, it is generally inaccessible.
“I think it makes a great impact by offering free books to everyone and making them available 24/7,” Salmon said.
Salmon currently works as an early childhood teacher at Howard Elementary in Grand Island. Howard Elementary is a Title 1 school, receiving financial assistance to help the community’s high percentage of low-income children reach their full academic potential.
A Little Free Library resides just outside of the elementary school, painted bright red with black paw prints that represent Howard Elementary’s mascot, the husky. On the front of the scarlet box is a hand-painted word: “Read.” Children’s books like the “Junie B. Jones” series by Barbara Park can be found inside.
Julie Schnitzler, Howard Elementary’s principal, said that the Little Free Library is currently unavailable for students due to COVID-19, but it has been popular in past years. The school accepts book donations from a variety of sources, and the student council changes or adds titles weekly.
“Students have the opportunity to read different titles and possibly pick books for themselves while they stock the LFL,” Schitzler said. “It provides a resource for students or children to access books that they’d like to read for their own enjoyment.”
The books inside the Little Free Library are meant to take and keep, or swap with a title of their own. Salmon said that this library is greatly important to the community, especially to low-income students.
According to the LFL website, two out of three children living in poverty have no books to call their own. The website also states that children that grow up without books are, on average, three years behind their peers academically.
“I think it is important that children have books they can keep,” Salmon said. “I try to give my students at least three books each year for them to keep.”
Children’s books are a necessity in both the little red box next to the elementary school and Salmon’s own library.
“I don’t usually catch people getting books, but my children’s books are always gone,” Salmon said. “I know that children are getting their own books to keep. It gives people a place to donate books they are done with and helps people find new books to read for free.”