By Dawn M Chiossi
There’s something intriguing at Caldwell’s Pollinator Garden, Short Hills’ Cora Hartshorn Arboretum and Bird Sanctuary, Essex County’s Environmental Center, and Montclair’s Van Vleck House and Gardens. When people see the four small, wooden boxes that invite book lovers to take a book and return a book, they have West Caldwell resident, 17-year-old James Stevens to thank for it.
Promoting book sharing within communities, these Little Free Libraries, as they are called, was the result of Stevens’ Eagle Scout project for West Caldwell’s Boy Scout Troop 6. Stevens has been involved with Troop 6 since 2008, since Cub Scouts.
Since 1912, the rank of Eagle Scout is a prestigious one. It is a milestone accomplishment recognized across the country and even the world. To achieve this rank, a scout must complete an Eagle Scout project. Serving several purposes, the project gives the scout an opportunity to demonstrate leadership, to utilize a myriad of management and organizational skills, and to provide empowerment. The end result of their efforts is a project that benefits the community.
After a tremendous amount of time, energy, and hard work, the Little Free Libraries were installed in early April, ready for National Children’s Book Week.
Similar to newspaper public display boxes, Little Free Library Books are displayed in waterproof wooden boxes with glass doors inviting others to “take a book, return a book.” Generally, these libraries are located in various locations that have lots of foot traffic and people passing by.
Founded in 2009, in Hudson, WI, the Little Free Library non-profit organization had one thing in mind; to share the love of reading and community by fostering book exchanges all around the world.
Great for adults and children alike, Little Free Libraries is an innovative idea that inspires others to read and share a particular interest with others. They urge people to reach out, to talk, discuss, and get to know others through books.
For Stevens, creating Little Free Libraries for his Eagle Scout project was an easy choice.
An avid reader since he was little, Stevens relates that he came up with the idea of creating Little Free Libraries because he was concerned about literacy, especially in children. For this Caldwell teen, books open up a whole new world through imagination, stimulating curiosity, and ultimately fueling ambition. For children, being exposed to books– long before they begin school- –is the key. “I’ve always loved to read,” Stevens shares. “I want to encourage reading especially in young people. Literature greatly helps them.”
Being particularly passionate about nature and the environment, Stevens stocked the various libraries with books on environmental literature. These are books that appreciate the natural world, people’s place in it, and how it affects future generations. “In Scouts, we did a lot of hiking and camping. I’ve always been surrounded by nature. I spent maybe about 100 nights camping in a tent, so far,” he quips.
For his stock, Stevens chose nature-related books as well as plants on the ecosystem, gardens, butterflies, and more. This includes The Encyclopedia of Butterflies, a favorite of his.
Taking an active leadership role, Stevens very much likened his Eagle Scout project to running a small business that took “incredible hours.” After deciding on the locations for his Little Free Libraries, he had to deal with the details where he could legally and safely install them. Once all that was accomplished, he had to identify people to be Stewards for the libraries. (These are caretakers of sorts.), he had to build them and register the libraries. (When registering, entrepreneurs gain access to a network of support and benefits, including an official charter sign and charter number). Stevens also had to build support for his idea through networking and social media. At last, then Little Free Library entrepreneurs could add their library to the world map online and have a Grand Opening celebration if they wish. Stevens did not, due to the long installation process.
Along the way, Stevens found that many people were kindred spirits ready to help him in his quest. Among them were the Stewards he chose to man his Little Free Libraries. Also, the many workers that helped him with the construction that took “over 168 man-hours.”
When asked what the most challenging part of the project was, he states that it was all of the networking and navigating he had to do to get the project approved.
It was something he wouldn’t have any other way. “All of that communication was the most rewarding in the end,” he asserts. “I met so many people doing this project, I learned so much in talking to them. They were just incredible. I want to thank them all.”
Looking back on all the hard work, man-hours, and challenges that he went through to get his project off the ground, Stevens asserts the payoff is definitely is the kids enjoying the books and libraries. “I received an email from one of the workers from the Environmental Center shortly after the installation of the Little Free Library in April with a picture of children enjoying the project,” he shares. “It’s so rewarding.”