A Little Free Library on Chicago's Northwest Side Credit: Ariel Parrella/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — A measure to regulate where public bookcases, also known as Little Free Libraries, can be built in Chicago was advanced by a key city committee Tuesday.

Introduced this summer by Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), the ordinance would require a public way use permit to build a free library on city-owned property. Little Free Libraries are often placed on city parkways outside their owners’ homes.

Additionally, only “organizations, not-for-profit entities and licensed businesses” would be eligible to receive the necessary permit to build a bookcase on city land under the legislation.

Private individuals would not be allowed to construct the structures on public property at all, Lopez confirmed in an interview Tuesday.

Libraries located on private property, like a front yard, would not be impacted by the measure.

“These bookcases have been popping up all throughout the city completely unregulated. And we’ve seen now as they gain traction in popularity, they’re showing up in locations that they probably need some clarification, particularly in parkways that don’t belong to the individual erecting the bookcase,” Lopez said. “So what this ordinance does is just basically creates a permit that will serve as a way of registering these in the public way.”

Lopez did not directly answer a question about whether neighbors who have built Little Free Libraries on public property would be allowed to keep them. But he said they should “get ready to have that conversation” about the structure’s future.

Chicago city code currently requires public way permits for various uses of city land, including signs, benches, bicycle racks and more.

The measure passed unanimously and without discussion Tuesday during a meeting of the City Council’s Committee on Transportation and Public Way. It must now be approved by the full Council, which next meets Wednesday.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) winks to Mayor Brandon Johnson at a City Council meeting at City Hall on June 21, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Owners of the libraries who receive a public way permit will be required to “paint, plainly mark, or otherwise affix the permit number and the permit holder’s name, address and telephone number on the outside of each public bookcase,” according to the ordinance.

The permits will be free for qualifying organizations and businesses, Lopez said.

“There’s no price to this permit, because we’re not trying to make money or we’re not trying to hamper the public’s ability to erect these bookcases,” he said. “I think they’re great. I’ve had Boy Scouts donate them, I have one in my office. We just want to make sure that we have a system in place of knowing who’s responsible and where they can go.”

Reached after the measure passed committee on Tuesday, one free library advocate however expressed concerns over the measure.

Nancy Wulkan is the founder of Neighbor to Neighbor Literacy Project, a nonprofit that works to expand literacy access by installing Little Free Libraries, or as the group calls them, Book Boxes, across Chicago.

She said there are some positives about the additional regulations, like clarifying who is responsible for the maintenance of each public bookcase. She’s also happy there would no fee required to access the permit.

But Wulkan also said Lopez’ ordinance could ultimately limit access to literacy, especially in communities where local block clubs and neighborhood groups may not be officially registered organizations but still want to build a free library.

“Anything that makes the process harder or more complicated, more intimidating, is probably going to discourage this kind of activity,” Wulkan said. “And I would hope that the City Council wants to embrace and encourage citizens to get involved and to find ways to bring community together. It really demonstrates people in that neighborhood, in that block, really care about the block.”

Wulkan also said there are good reasons people place their Little Free Libraries in the public parkway near their homes, even if it’s technically city property. Namely, it’s easier for the surrounding community to access them there, she said.

“If you keep it on residential property, private property, sometimes people are intimidated. ‘Oh, can I use this? I don’t know. … I don’t want to trespass on property, or whatever,'” Wulkan said. “So that’s why I think a lot of neighborhoods, a lot of residents put it in the parkway right in front of their house, because then it’s right at the street and people can pop by easily and use it that way.”

If passed by the full Council, the proposed regulations will go into effect Jan. 1.

A free library at the R.A.G.E. Plaza in Englewood, courtesy of the Neighbor to Neighbor Literacy Project. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

Alderpeople during Tuesday’s committee meeting also approved a measure introduced by Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) requiring quarterly hearings “regarding the service levels, operations and security” of the Chicago Transit Authority.

The ordinance would also require the CTA President — currently Dorval Carter — to testify if requested by the transportation committee chair.

An ordinance that would direct the city’s forestry bureau to remove or trim “all damaged, diseased or dangerous” trees on city parkways was tabled during Tuesday’s meeting.

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