Please: No religious material—An Open Letter to the Little Free Library

The Little Free Library movement needs to remind its constituency that anti-religious bigotry is bad for its brand.

Those little book-sharing boxes have become, within just a few short years, in many circles a beloved bit of Americana. They appeal to those who like a bit of picturesque quaintness and public displays of culture on their blocks. What’s more, there is the grassroots appeal of an average person creating and maintaining a little library for public use. All very charming and harmless. If you need a tattered paperback or battered hardback on the topic of your choice to take home with you free of charge, this is the movement for you. The more reading matter, the better. Right?

Thus, I was taken aback some months to see these words in one of the Little Free Library boxes in our city, “Please: No religious material.”

This may be a single instance in the entire Little Free Library universe of such blatant bigotry. It would be interesting, though, to know if others across the country have seen such notices marring the landscape. After all, we don’t want the whole brand of the Little Free Library to be tarred by aggressive irreligion and the prejudices it reflects. This particular book-sharing box abuts a sidewalk across the street from a popular park. Hardly a good way to advertise the message of diversity and inclusivity that the Little Free Library never tires of advocating.

It is time for the leadership of Little Free Library to step in and point out that excluding religious material is very much at odds with its public image. This is doubly so given that a big proportion of the books recommended as part of its new initiative, Read in Color have to do with a particular religion: Islam. An example.

In My Mosque by M. O. Yuksel, illustrated by Hatem Aly (40 pp, HarperCollins, 2021). No matter who you are or where you’re from, everyone is welcome here. From grandmothers reading lines of the Qur’an and the imam telling stories of living as one, to meeting new friends and learning to help others, mosques are centers for friendship, community, and love. Ages 4-8.

That pretty clearly falls under the “religious material” rubric.

Indeed, the rules for what to include and what the “stewards” (the word the organization uses to denote those who maintain the boxes under the organization’s auspices) can exclude are pretty vague.

For example, it says this on the organization’s website:

Respect: We value all people and communities, and we respect their wisdom in using Little Free Libraries in a meaningful, individualistic way suited to their culture and locality.

Well, given that religious liberty is a pillar of American society it would behoove the Little Free Library to remind its stewards that American culture in every locality must respect religious liberty precepts. It is a matter of constitutional law, for one thing.

One notes that Little Free Library uses the word “library” in its title. It is hard to imagine any public library in the United States posting the wording, “Please: no religious material.” This sort of restriction of the free exchange of ideas is inimical to the whole point of a library. That being so, perhaps the Little Free Library should be renamed, “Little Free Book-Sharing Sites.”

Here is a bit about such issues from the FAQs of the Little Free Library website:

What if someone places inappropriate books inside the library?

Everyone who uses the library has the right of helping make sure the types of books in it are appropriate to neighbors of all ages and backgrounds. You are as capable as anyone else to remove a book … but we encourage you to be open-minded about it. For example, if the library becomes a place for promoting controversial causes, it might lose a good number of customers.

Censorship is not the answer, but a balanced collection can be. Don’t ban books, but instead of five or 10 copies of something, one copy might do.

It sounds like it is high time that the organization send out a notice reiterating that message, “Censorship is not the answer…”

In the meantime, I would just like to pose some questions to this anti-religion steward. Perhaps they will be read and pondered not only by that person but by other stewards who may have similar, unwelcoming notices on their Little Free Library boxes.

Dear Neighbor:

While I appreciate the trouble you have gone to set up a Little Free Library in our neighborhood, I just want to say that the notice on your box, “Please: no religious material” is not at all in keeping with the spirit of tolerance and openness to all here. As you know, in the park just across the street there is a playground that is used by the many Muslims who study at our local university. Their children play there. Similarly, many church groups have picnics in the park. What kind of a message does it send to all of those happy people to say that in our neighborhood, religious material is unwelcome? You mean like the Koran? The Bible? The Book of Mormon? The Upanishads?

Also, I don’t quite get why you have gone to the trouble and expense to set up a vehicle for the dissemination of knowledge only to expressly forbid anything to do with a huge part of the human experience of the last several thousand years and a key source of comfort and learning during the pandemic. What do you see as the primary aim of your Little Free Library? The provision of pulp fiction and non-religious bestsellers? No religious material. Hmm. Copies of Mein Kampf or Lady Chatterley's Lover, yes, but St. Augustine’s Confessions and Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, no?

Is it part of your understanding of the goals of the Little Free Library movement and of libraries in general that banning religious material is fine and dandy? Do you not see the irony of going to the trouble of building a Little Free Library only to ban books containing certain ideas from it? What message does that send about you and your attitudes towards those with religious convictions? Do you really want to be the bigot on the block?

Do you deny that lives can be redeemed and enriched by chance encounters with religious material? Why are you so determined to deny space in your Little Free Library (which I must point out is rather sparse in its offerings most of the time) to religious material? It seems so anti-knowledge and cruel.

Could you be more specific about what you categorize as “religious material?” I assume that would refer to, say, pocket version of the New Testament or copies of the entire Bible. But does it also encompass anything to do with religion and biographies of people for whom religion was a key focus of their lives? Can I leave a biography of Muhammad Ali in this Little Free Library but only if I first tear out all the pages about his Muslim faith? I assume that biographies of people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, John Paul II, Harriet Beecher Stowe or Mahatma Gandhi would be out.

Would you exclude studies of religiously-themed works of art or architecture or religious sites? Soooo, nothing on The Last Supper, the St. Matthew Passion, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Cathedral at Chartres, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem? John Lennon would get a place in your Little Free Library, say, but Johann Sebastian Bach would not?

I am just curious if you have reflected on the impact that religion has had on, you know, books and publishing?

Let's see. What was one of the most important books ever printed? The Gutenberg Bible.

Who kept the flame of learning alive during the Dark Ages? The Catholic Church.

Where can you find some of the most beautiful English prose ever written? The King James Bible.

Who basically shaped and formed the German language as we know it? Martin Luther.

Who was heavily influenced in his thinking about human freedom and the dignity and equality of all men by the Book of Genesis and the Gospels? Abraham Lincoln.

What forms the basis of our entire legal and moral framework? The Hebrew Bible.

When I left China after a year there in the early 1990s, I was struck by how many of the young people I had taught English to requested that I send them bibles. That was brave of them because receiving such packages from abroad was not without personal risk. What I find particularly disheartening in your anti-religious notice, neighbor, is that you are excluding material that people the world over are denied but long for. Who would have thought that just up the street every passerby must stroll by a tiny turf of totalitarianism? What an embarrassment for our neighborhood. I urge you to rethink this policy. Luckily, as far as I can determine none of the other Little Library Boxes in Corvallis are so hostile to something (think William Tyndale) died trying to supply to their fellow man.

I would also remind you that your prohibition on religious material is not at all in keeping with the Little Free Library spirit which is as follows:

A Little Free Library is a “take a book, return a book” free book exchange. They come in many shapes and sizes, but the most common version is a small wooden box of books. Anyone may take a book or bring a book to share. Little Free Library book exchanges have a unique, personal touch. There is an understanding that real people are sharing their favorite books with their community; little libraries have been called “mini-town squares.”

But what you are saying is, “I believe in freedom of thought—except for anything that means the most to millions of people.” Ironically, perhaps, it is turning secularism into a religion. You just don’t seem to grasp the purpose of libraries or books or the rudiments of showing kindness to other people who are interested in broadening their minds and seeking solace by chance encounters with holy books. Maybe you should switch to beekeeping or flower arranging.

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