These days most people have mobile phones (‘cellphones’ to transatlantic readers) and as a result many phone boxes (‘phone booths’) are becoming redundant, in the UK at least. As it is, many of those surviving and operating don’t accept cash, only cards (perhaps to lessen attempted thefts, probably because coinage is becoming a threatened species). The classic British red telephone boxes are being sold off as novelty items, garden ornaments or whatever, but a few — and more than a few, if Google Maps are to be believed — are being converted to … free libraries.
Last year I came across the ‘library’ in Trecastle, Powys — Trecastell in Welsh — and took a couple of photos. (Needless to say, I had a quick peruse of the books too!) According to the Trecastle Community Centre’s Facebook page, “The phone box was offered to the Council for one pound, or they [BT, presumably] would remove it. We accepted the box and some discussion took place and it was decided to make it into a lending library. It has been painted blue to replicate Dr Who`s Tardis.” This must have been not long before I saw it.
Since then it’s been given a fresh lick of paint and signage proclaiming it as the TRECASTLE TARDIS LIBRARY. In 2016 they noted that it’s “as yet unfinished”. They just had to “fix some shelves in the box and then you can either drop books off, pick books up or take them permanently … Or just go in and have a read when it’s raining. It’s quite warm in there.” It was still there and functioning when I drove past earlier this week.
The idea of free libraries or book exchanges isn’t new, and they needn’t just be located in an old phone box. Most bibliophiles will have heard of Little Free Libraries, a concept which originated as recently as 2009, and has since spread to dozens of countries around the world. These mini-libraries frequently resemble real structures in miniature, from the original Wisconsin library (modelled on a traditional schoolhouse) to several TARDIS replicas, from a design based on a railway signal box to a book exchange housed in a reconditioned music centre cabinet. Most designs are essentially glass-fronted boxes with a door, usually with a roof structure to make the library as house-like as possible (and be relatively weatherproof!). ‘Stewards’ are encouraged to customise them for the expected clientele, whether schoolchildren or the wider community.
Variations exist, of course. New Zealand’s South Island has, at the last count, around a hundred Lilliput Libraries, centred mainly on the town of Dunedin. And of course, the UK has its phone box book exchanges, which began as early as 2009 — the same year as the first US Little Free Library — when the Somerset village of Westbury-sub-Mendip bought its defunct red telephone box for £1.00 and turned it into a free book swap shop. No doubt you know of others.
Whether called a book exchange, little free library or Lilliput library the principles behind them all are in general the same: to encourage reading among as many people as possible through free access to free books. The instructions for use are common the world over: take a book and return or replace a book (whether the same one or another).
Despite the killjoys — and be assured there are always some, and will always be some — this is a wonderful concept, especially in a world where profit and gain are too frequently measured solely in monetary terms, rather than personal and communal. Do you know of one near you?