By MARINA WATERS
On Emma Grace Drive a tiny bird house-like structure bearing a Tennessee three-star emblem resides, proudly awaiting a kid with a thirst for reading to come get his or her fill.
Lisa Barnett was once one of those eager children, ready for her next adventure waiting inside the pages of a book. And now, Barnett is giving that opportunity to kids and folks of all ages through the Little Free Library sitting watch in her yard.
“I have loved books since I was little. I have always loved books and there were times when I didn’t necessarily have access to books,” Barnett recalled. “When I saw my first Little Free Library in Glencoe Village, North Carolina I knew then—and that was two years ago—I knew then that I wanted one. And I knew I could put one in my yard.
“It’s just something I felt drawn to have.”
Little Free Library is a nonprofit organization designed to offer free books to the community. The creator originally built the first one to look like an old school house in honor of his mother who was a teacher and also loved books. They’ve spread across the country, but the idea remains the same—“take a book, leave a book” in order to encourage folks of all ages to take whatever book they like and to leave one as well.
But Barnett’s library, which was constructed by her husband as a Christmas gift, was built on more than just the Little Free Library’s original intent; the Little Free Library is a labor of love.
“It’s just a love of books and a love of having something to read,” Barnett said when explaining her reason for wanting a Little Free Library. “I think that’s important. Things like that are going by the wayside—cursive writing and you know…I just think a physical book in your hands means something. You can look at an iPad, you can look at a telephone, a computer screen, but to me, just having a physical book in my hand always meant something. I’m sure there are still people out there that enjoy that.”
Though the Little Free Library centers around books, this particular structure’s creator built the library with the community in mind.
“The focus is on kids with this. In the summertime, they may be walking around the neighborhood, they see it, they pick out a book. Nothing would make me happier,” Barnett said, laughing. “I felt like this is something I can do for my community, something I can do to get people talking, to get people meeting—give somebody something to read.”
Offering a resource from which kids can discover new favorites and classic tales isn’t all Barnett wants to give her community. To this Emma Grace Drive resident, a book is the perfect device to take its reader to places far beyond the Washington County limits.
“It’s just an escape. A book is an escape. You read it and you’re there. I used to get encyclopedias off the shelf and read them,” Barnett said, laughing at the memory.
“You can read a book and suddenly you’re wherever that book’s taking place. That’s what’s wonderful—it encourages imagination.”
The hope for Barnett’s Little Free Library is to offer adventures, but also to provide opportunities that differ from much of today’s technological world.
“They need something,” Barnett said with a sigh. “There’s too much social media and electronics, and I sound like an old woman by saying that, but there’s too much technology. They’re just bombarded by sounds and screens and maybe something like this, something different—I can see like a 5-year-old who learns there’s a little library in the neighborhood saying, ‘Mommy, will you take me? I want to get a book.’ That would just thrill me that it would encourage something different. Or that they could say to their friends, ‘Hey I went to the Little Free Library’ or ‘Have you been to the Little Free Library?’ It might encourage them to read a little bit more.”
Kids aren’t the only ones encouraged to enjoy the Little Free Library; Barnett said she has seen parents catch a glimpse of an old book they once read as a kid and immediately go right back to that feeling of reading it for the first time.
“It may be something that you’ve read before like a classic when you were a kid,” Barnett explained. “We’ve had moms walk by here with their strollers say, ‘Ah I read that when I was little!’ And you might want to read it again.”
The red, white and blue, house-shaped home for short stories and chapter books alike — standing at the edge of Barnett’s yard — doesn’t just symbolize a love of reading and the memories associated with books and stories; Barnett also wanted to honor her beloved state of Tennessee with the tri-star symbol she carefully painted on the front.
Barnett said she was inspired to paint the symbol on the Little Free Library after seeing the help so many Tennesseans offered to Gatlinburg after the town’s wildfire devastation. After she painted it, Barnett even sent information and a photo of her little library to the Tennessee Governor’s office who tweeted a picture of it on the Read to be Ready twitter page.
The heart of Barnett’s project, however, dates back further than a time when her home state made her proud; after discovering her love for books and doing all she could to get her hands on those printed pages as a kid, Barnett’s passion for reading never burnt out. Instead, this project might have reignited her love for books—and her life.
“I’m just partial to the printed word. If I get books from Amazon, I get the printed books. It just comes from being a child of my generation,” Barnett recalled. “We had books and I always worked in the library when I was in elementary school and middle school. I was drawn to books. Why I never pursued a career in that, I do not know.”
After a moment of thinking about the career tied to reading she could have pursued, Barnett looked ahead with hope for the future: “My second life may be starting.”