Sections

Weather Forecast

Close

Little Free Library founder dies, Wisconsin man believed books could make better neighborhoods

Todd Bol, seen in Hudson, Wis., on March 11, 2015, founded the nonprofit Little Fee Library, a free book-exchange movement, in 2009. He built the first library, right foreground, in September 2009 and the movement has grown to a worldwide presence. Bol died Thursday, Oct. 18. 2018. Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press1 / 2
A close-up of the very first Little Fee Library, #0001, built by founder Todd Bol in September 2009. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press2 / 2

HUDSON, Wis.—On the last day he could speak, Little Free Library founder Todd Bol had a message for the world:

"I really believe in a Little Free Library on every block and a book in every hand," he said from hospice in Oakdale. "I believe people can fix their neighborhoods, fix their communities, develop systems of sharing, learn from each other, and see that they have a better place on this planet to live."

Bol, who lived in Hudson, spent the last nine years putting little libraries on neighborhood blocks and books in people's hands, died Thursday, Oct. 18, of complication from pancreatic cancer. He was 62.

The people carrying on the nonprofit Bol created have a request for the volunteer stewards of the more than 75,000 Little Free Libraries in all 50 states and in 88 countries: Please tie silver or white ribbons around the little libraries in memory of their founder and executive director.

Margaret Bernstein, a board member and a library steward, tied the first ribbon around one of the Little Free Libraries that Bol installed in her community in Cleveland.

"I do think by the time we wake up in the morning there will be a national movement to say thanks to Todd," Bernstein said on Thursday. "That's what I hope."

More than 700 miles from Cleveland, back in the fall of 2009, Bol established the first little library in his front yard in Hudson. Like many of the best ideas and companies, it started in his garage. That's where Bol, a lifelong entrepreneur, built the first library, in the shape of a schoolhouse to honor his late mother, June, a teacher.

He realized the little library's big influence the following spring, when his family had a garage sale.

'Something meaningful'

"The library was a hit," Bol told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in a 2015 interview. "I watched reactions of kids and grown-ups, and I knew we had something meaningful. It magically brought out the sweet side of humanity, the secret primal urge calling us to come together."

It took a little longer for his brother to realize the power of taking a book or leaving a book in a cute little library.

"My initial reaction was that he had some pet rock idea — trendy and cute," said Tony Bol. "I was shocked at how it grew and grew. I realized it wasn't trendy: It really defined a movement, as opposed to a market."

This movement is about literacy and connection; it's a slice of public art that encourages the curious to stop and look; to share.

"It's a watercooler of the sidewalk," Tony Bol says.

This watercooler of books began to flow after Bol teamed with Rick Brooks, at the time the University of Wisconsin-Madison outreach program manager in continuing studies, with a goal of building 2,510 Little Libraries — one more than the full-size brick libraries that philanthropist Andrew Carnegie built across the country at the turn of the 20th century. The organization, officially established as a Wisconsin nonprofit in May 2012, met its goal by August 2012. By 2013, Reader's Digest had named the Little Free Library as No. 11 in its "50 Surprising Reasons We Love America."

Cancer diagnosed just weeks ago

In the midst of this growth, just weeks ago, Bol was diagnosed with cancer and rapidly declined. During this difficult time, his brother was reminded of the power of one person to make a difference.

"When I was visiting Todd in the hospital," said Tony Bol, "I would go to the local coffee shop and on my way I'd see three Little Free Libraries. Or when I was going to see him at the hospice, I'd see four Little Free Libraries on my way. Maybe I'm noticing them more now, but they seem to be dotted everywhere."

Just before he passed away, Todd Bol told Aldrich of his hope for the rest of us to keep his efforts going — a kid with dyslexia who grew up with a dream of bringing books to every block and every person in this world.

The readers of this world are grieving now. Comments to the Little Free Library's social media include this one: "Todd, rest in peace. You did an amazing thing, and we will carry on this legacy of love of reading, books, literacy, and the written word. You have touched oh so very very many lives and hearts. May you rest in peace, knowing that on every corner in America, your legacy lives on in the form of these beautiful little boxes of books."

Besides his brother and other friends, relatives and bookworms, Bol is survived by his wife and two children. The nonprofit is asking people to share stories of their founder on their website, or by mailing a letter to Little Free Library, 573 County Road A, Suite 106, Hudson, WI 54016. Donations may also be made to the Todd H. Bol Vision Fund.