IUSM staff member launches a 'Little Free Library' in Indy

February 19, 2015

A “60 Minutes” story that caught José Espada’s attention last year was the inspiration for a project that provided the IU School of Medicine official an excuse to indulge his passion for woodworking -- and to make a difference in his Broad Ripple neighborhood.

A bench offers a potential reading place beside one of the hundreds of Little Free Libraries in the Indianapolis area, and one of more than 20,000 sites worldwide. | Photo By Little Free Library.org

The story focused on Little Free Library, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit formed in 2009 and dedicated to improving literacy by creating a network of small “book houses” or shelves erected in yards or walkways open to foot traffic. They usually are weatherproofed, and many have glass walls to allow passers-by to see what books are available.

Organizers hoped to establish 2,500 sites for the “take a book, leave a book” program, in which people can take books on the shelves to read and return, or even keep. Turns out, they were a little short of the mark. As of January 2014, there were an estimated 15,000 libraries in U.S. neighborhoods, businesses, schools and other sites. Worldwide, estimates are 20,000 libraries in 80 countries.

Espada, the director of financial aid in the Office of Medical Student Affairs at the IU School of Medicine, said Indiana has been fertile ground for the program, which asks a nominal registration fee for “hosts” that in turn supports a scholarship program.

“Last I heard, there were more than 200 libraries around our area,” Espada said. “But when I built my first one, there were none. It has really caught on.”

Although it was the news story that originally piqued his interest, Espada's passion for the project only grew the more he explored the literacy movement. The more he worked on his own Little Free Library, the more excited he got.

“It’s been a wonderful addition to the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s wonderful to see people stop by to pick out books. And we love to see young families walk by, and the kids say ‘can we stop to see if there is a book for me?’ People stop by again and again.”

José Espada, director of financial aid, during the 2014 IUSM Match Day.

Espada has built two libraries, the first in 2012. He and his wife, former IUPUI employee Angela Espada, share a passion for the movement. And they have noticed some trends.

“The original goal was to take a book, read it and bring it back for someone else,” Angela said, but added with a laugh that “children’s books never come back. We got started because we had a lot of books and magazines that we were planning to give away. Instead, our library has been great for our neighborhood.”

It’s a good way to improve relationships, too, José added.

“You get to have conversations with people,” he said. “Once, I was out front gardening, and a homeless guy stopped by when he saw our library. He’s been coming by regularly and picking up books, something he can’t do at other libraries.”

The Espadas are enthusiastic supporters of the Little Free Library and its commitment to literacy.

“It can be beneficial for everybody,” José said. “For older readers, it’s a way to share books, magazines, CDs and more with others. For younger kids, it can be a way to explore new worlds.”