“We know that reading is important, you learn to read and then you read to learn, and the more we can encourage young people to read…the more successful they will be.” Erika Steuterman and the women at Women United knew how important literacy skills are to students’ success in school and beyond, and they wanted to do something to put books in the hands of Tippecanoe County students. In 2017, they decided to conduct a book drive, which has since become an annual event for the group. The first year, they expected to receive around 100 books but ended up with thousands, leaving one question: what do we do with the books?

The answer came in the form of a growing trend in communities around the world: little libraries. These enclosed bookshelves are placed in public locations and contain books for community members to borrow, offering free reading materials more conveniently than public libraries. Women United knew that they wanted these little libraries to bring people together, so they looked for collaborators on the project and found a helping hand in the Purdue University student chapter of the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) and their faculty advisor, Mark Zimpfer.

Zimpfer and his students enthusiastically agreed to design and build the little libraries. Steuterman knew that the Purdue students would be an asset to the project: “There’s so much good volunteerism at Purdue. That’s just the mindset of college kids these days, and we wanted to leverage that.” With some guidance from Steuterman and United Way, they created structures with two shelves, shatterproof plexiglass doors, and rainproof roofing, donating their time and materials to make the project successful. The diverse women of Women United decided that they wanted to make the little libraries “whimsical,” so they and the United Way staff worked together to paint different colorful designs on each of the structures, making them eye-catching for patrons of all ages.

After the little libraries were completed, Women United faced one more question: where would the libraries go? They considered reaching out to private companies to ask to place the libraries around their facilities but instead found another ally in the Lafayette Parks Department, who volunteered to install the libraries in their parks. Steuterman says, “I really want to thank the Parks Department…They’ve just been fantastic to work with.” Now, Greater Lafayette community members can enjoy the outdoors and get a new book in the same place.

Steuterman credits the project’s success to the collaboration amongst different groups in the community: “No man is an island, and you have to collaborate with people…and the more collaborators you pull in…the better product you’re going to have at the end.” The little libraries could not have been completed without the help of Women United, Purdue NAHB, the Lafayette Parks Department, and United Way of Greater Lafayette, and Steuterman hopes that they will continue to bring people together across the community to support literacy skills. The next time you visit a Lafayette park, we encourage you to also visit the little library and help our community to Live United through shared books.