Free lending libraries offer easy access to reading

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When 3-year-old Linnaea wants to read a new book, she and her mom just walk down the road from her house and visit the Free Lending Library attached to a tree at the hairpin turn.

These charming cabinets of free books are popping up throughout the Denali Borough and getting lots of use. In Linnaea’s neighborhood, the bottom shelf is filled with books for children.

Jean Balay built the first one in the area on Stampede Trail about three years ago.

“I saw little lending libraries in places I have traveled and had lots of small wood scraps I was anxious to get rid of or make use of,” she said. “Folks on the homeowners board had it on a list of possible projects.”

Now, that local lending library on Stampede Trail is a routine stop for many local readers. Balay monitors the books on a regular basis.

“Some stuff goes really fast, other books stick around for months,” she said. Some books get taken eventually to the Literacy Council’s Forget-Me-Not bookstore in Fairbanks.

Seeing that successful project inspired Anne Barker, who lives more than 20 miles away at McKinley Village. She created a Free Lending Library for her own neighborhood this year.

“It was early spring and early in the pandemic,” she said. “The slower pace had us looking around for local fun for our kids.

“We chose a location that would be walking distance for the neighborhood, with the idea that we could all refresh our books, get some exercise and run into neighbors on the way.”

Building the library was a family project on Mother’s Day, she said. She, husband Luke Lohmuller and two young daughters renovated an old cabinet donated by neighbors.

“Within a few days of placement, it was full of books,” Barker said. “Our girls — Linnaea, 3, and Jolena, 1, love to check out books there.”

There’s even a bottle of hand sanitizer to help keep book browsers safe.

The third Free Lending Library that I’m aware of is now located at the McKinley Community Center and Fire Hall, compliments of Martha Tomeo, the Tri-Valley School librarian.

“I’ve wanted to create a little lending library for years,” she said.

She and her daughter explored one together at the House of Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, during a vacation and Tomeo thought, “Hey, we should make one of these.”

“This spring, with all our time at home, I resolved to finally make good on that idea,” she said. “As a librarian, I love books and promoting reading, and I have so many books for our family to share with other readers.”

In the spirit of recycling, she contacted the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and arranged to get an old newspaper vending machine.

“After a little tinkering — removing the coin box and spring loaded shelf — and a fresh coat of paint, we were done,” she said.

Her initial plan of bright colors evolved to keeping it simple and going with an old-fashioned chalkboard look.

“We’re very excited that these book exchange libraries are now a part of our own community,” she added.

Free lending libraries are actually part of a national program intended to build community, spark creativity and inspire readers. See more information at

Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris.

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