Village Cracks Down on Little Free Libraries
Whitefish Bay is the first governmental body in the nation to restrict the popular book depots from residents' front yards – although they are still allowed on porches and back yards.
The Little Free Libraries that have been heralded around the world for promoting literacy and cultivating a sense of community by sharing books with neighbors have come under restrictions in Whitefish Bay.
The Village Board decided to enforce the existing village code and ban Little Free Libraries from front yards across the village – not out of a hatred of literacy – but because mailboxes and other structures are not allowed in the front yards of Whitefish Bay homes.
With more than 4,000 to 5,000 Little Free Libraries erected in 34 countries, Whitefish Bay is the first municipality to restrict the structures, according to Rick Brooks from the national Little Free Library organization.
The board's discussion about Little Free Libraries began in September, when the village learned that Christ Church had erected a Little Free Library in front of its meditation garden in late July. After receiving another, separate request to build a Little Free Library, Paul Launer, the village's building inspector, brought the issue before the Village Board, asking whether the village should allow the structures, not allow the structures or attempt to regulate them.
At the time, Launer said he had concerns that multiple Little Free Libraries would start sprouting up on each block, that they would grow to increasingly larger sizes or become obnoxious in their design.
The Village Board directed Launer to sketch up some rough dimensions to incorporate in the village code, but the process of regulating the structures led to even more questions, such as what can go inside of the Little Free Libraries.
"There seems to be no end to the silliness that we think of where these things can go," Village Manager Patrick DeGrave said at Monday night's Village Board meeting. "Not just in the size, shape, color or oddities, but what can go in there? You're not going to regulate what goes inside."
If offensive materials or propaganda end up in the Little Free Libraries, then the village could find itself facing a lawsuit for freedom of expression, said Village Manager Patrick DeGrave.
Trustee Richard Foster argued the Village Board shouldn't even be discussing Little Free Libraries.
"I don't think we should deal with this until it becomes a problem," he said. "Not every problem requires a government solution."
As it stands, Christ Church's Little Free Library is out of compliance with the village code, so the village runs the risk of perceived favoritism by allowing the church's structure and not others, Village Attorney Chris Jaekels said.
"It starts to look like selective prosecution," Jaekels said.
"Selective prosecution is the name of the game," Foster countered, arguing jaywalking is not aggressively enforced.
Brooks said he has not heard of any Little Free Libraries being subject to these kinds of regulations. In the rare case where public officials have raised concerns about safety, maintenance and liability, Brooks said the Little Free Library organization has been able to work with public officials.
"As Little Free Library builders get more creative, some of the Libraries may seem more like sculpture or actual buildings that are subject to regulations that prohibit them. So far, that has not been the case," he said. "The Little Libraries have been noted positively by Realtors and homebuyers as assets to neighborhoods that positively influenced decisions about living there."
There are at least two Little Free Libraries in Shorewood, another at Kletzsch Park in Glendale, and in Bayside, at Ellsworth Park and the Village Hall parking lot. Those villages have not addressed Little Free Libraries.
After discussing possible regulations, the Whitefish Bay trustees decided to ban the structures outright.
"I think it's silly to have to come up with parameters," said Trustee Jay Miller. "We just don't need this."
Trustee Jim Roemer agreed, saying "it's a hornet's nest for village staff to deal with."
Miller and the rest of the trustees were reluctant to tell the church to take down their structure, but they decided to do so in the name of fairness.
Rev. Seth Dietrich, the rector at Christ Church, said he does not want to be out of compliance with the village's ordinances, so he will relocate the structure to be closer to the doors or the stairway. Because it would be on or adjacent to an existing structure, it would come into compliance with the village code.
The books at Christ Church's Little Free Library were specifically selected for spiritual exploration and growth, including literature from Jewish and Buddhist authors, Dietrich said.
"We really wanted this to be a resource for people to explore a variety of spiritual books," he said. "We intentionally stayed away from using it to self-promote our church."
Dannette Lank also felt bad about the loss of the church's Little Free Library because she brought the issue to the village's attention in the first place. She and her husband intended to build a Little Free Library at their Sylvan Avenue home as an anniversary gift, and asked the village for permission before moving forward.
"I want to apologize to the church because they are now losing something just because I decided to ask for permission," Lank said.
(This article was updated at 8:30 p.m., Nov. 11 to include comments from Rick Brooks of the Little Free Library organization.)