Building the front yard library on Lynbrook was difficult work, but Stacy Holmes’ passion for the project never faltered. The result: a Lilliputian sidewalk-side structure — think a doghouse on stilts filled with books, but stylish, with rustic-looking dark wood walls and distressed-silver knobs — in which her neighbors seemed to delight.
They borrowed books and left others in return. Her toil had paid off, thought the mother of three.
Then an anonymous protest, backed by city ordinance, threatened to undo everything.
Someone filed a complaint about Holmes’ library through the city’s 311 line, records show, and the city responded with a notice of violation and orders to remove it.
Little Free Libraries are increasingly popular in Dallas, but many of them violate various sections of Dallas’ City Code. That was not a problem until someone complained. City spokesperson Sana Syed says this is the first complaint she’s heard of in Dallas about a Little Free Library.
Neighborhood city councilman Jerry Allen says he foresees eventual change to ordinances that prevent the proliferation of front-yard lending libraries, but will the amendments come soon enough to save this particular structure?
“It takes three months, six months, a year to get an ordinance changed. It has to go through committees, sometimes several of them, before they even go to council for a vote,” Allen says. “This will be changed because it’s common sense. It’s on the radar, but it is going to take time.”
Meanwhile, Dallas’ libraries director Jo Giudice is working with the Holmes family to bring its little library into compliance.
“We are not ogres. We don’t want to tear it down. We are looking at the code and exploring ideas,” Giudice says.
The nonprofit group Friends of the Dallas Public Library has offered to help pay for any expenses related to moving the Holmes’ library into compliance, should that become an option, she says.[quote align=”right” color=”000000”]“We are not ogres. We don’t want to tear it down. We are looking at the code and exploring ideas.”[/quote]
“This family has put so much into this already,” Giudice says. “We don’t want them to have to pay more.”
Little Free Libraries first began popping up in Dallas a few years ago. During a trip to Minnesota, 10-year-old Hannah Wahl, a White Rock area resident, spotted dozens of Little Free Libraries — cute, dollhouse-sized structures placed in homeowners’ front yards. Inside them were rows of books. Outside, a tiny sign: “Little Free Library. Take a book. Return a book.”
Back home in East Dallas, as a birthday gift, Hannah’s family helped her build her own. The trend took off — there are at least five in the Lake Highlands area, according to littlefreelibrary.org, but none have received violation notices (because no one has complained about them).
Holmes’ violation notice instructed that the “book drop erected in the front yard setback” be removed. A setback, as it applies to land use, means the distance that a building or other structure is set back from a street or road. Because they violate parts of the code related to outside storage, and sometimes setback, once someone complains about a little library, the city’s hands are tied, Allen explains. They have to respond.
“I was completely distraught,” Holmes says of the removal order, “especially since we put so much time, effort and resources into it. I wasn’t even done decorating it.”
She says she and her daughter built the library last winter after years of planning and designing. A mother of three (twin toddlers and a 10-year-old girl), Holmes added her kids’ favorite books, and her mother donated some novels, Holmes says. And people left their favorites in return.
“Someone left ‘Wild,’ a book recently made into a movie, which I had been wanting to read,” Holmes says.
It wasn’t just about the books.
“Neighbors I did not know were coming over. They would introduce themselves. We were getting to know each other, and might not have ever talked if not for the library.”[quote align=”right” color=”000000”]“Neighbors I did not know were coming over. They would introduce themselves. We were getting to know each other, and might not have ever talked if not for the library.”[/quote]
The Holmes’ library is popular, and many neighbors have shown support for the family during weeks spent fighting for their right to keep their LFL.
Lake Ridge Estates North resident Laura Stead says she loves the little library and was surprised to hear about the violation notice.
“Promoting literacy and reading while bringing the neighborhood together is such a neat concept,” Stead says. “I am shocked that the city would waste time and money pursuing the removal of such a positive structure. It’s hardly larger than a birdhouse.”
While Holmes enjoys widespread support, the complainers are not alone either.
As little libraries’ popularity increased nationwide, so have instances of objections and forced removals.
In Kansas, a 9-year-old boy’s fight to keep his front yard library drew intense media coverage. (He eventually persuaded his city to place a moratorium on laws that prohibited Little Free Libraries.)
In February, The Atlantic magazine published an editorial shaming Los Angeles and Shreveport, La. — cities that, according to the writer, despite persistent crime, homelessness and infrastructure woes, have chosen to crack down on Little Free Libraries.
Councilman Allen, whose term ends this year, says the volume and content of neighbor-on-neighbor complaints regularly amazes him, yet the city frequently has no choice other than to address them.
“The code people aren’t out there looking for this kind of thing by any means. Unfortunately, people see things in different ways, and citizens complain about other citizens all the time, and they find and use these code violations,” Allen says.
“This will be changed at the ordinance level. We are starting the process of getting this to committee. We need to see that whoever takes my place continues to carry that ball.”