Little Village youth pick books from the little library at La Villita Community Church on July 11, 2021. Credit: Maia McDonald/Block Club Chicago

CITY HALL — An ordinance to regulate where public bookcases such as Little Free Libraries can be built in Chicago was held up by a parliamentary maneuver at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

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.

“The reason I’m pursuing this is because it came to my attention because of … issues in my ward, where the libraries were popping up in front of people’s parkways and they didn’t belong to the house. They had no association with the resident or owner,” Lopez said Wednesday. “It’s a completely unregulated section of city code. So, like everything else that’s on a public way, if we’re going to allow this and we’re going to encourage this, let’s make sure we’re doing it in the right and safe way.”

The proposed ordinance also stipulates 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 this week.

Libraries on private property, like a front yard, would not be impacted.

The measure passed unanimously and without discussion Tuesday during a meeting of the City Council’s Committee on Transportation and Public Way.

But when the ordinance came up for a vote at Wednesday’s full council meeting, Alds. Daniel La Spata (1st) and Maria Hadden (49th) moved to block it by deferring and publishing the legislation. That means the measure can still be revisited at a later City Council meeting.

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

If Lopez’s ordinance eventually passes, owners of the libraries who receive a public way permit would 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.”

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

Nancy Wulkan, founder of Neighbor to Neighbor Literacy Project, which installs Little Free Libraries across Chicago, voiced concerns about the ordinance Tuesday.

Wulkan said there are some positives about the additional regulations, like clarifying who is responsible for the maintenance of each public bookcase. But Lopez’s ordinance could ultimately limit literacy access across Chicago, she said.

“Anything that makes the process harder or more complicated, more intimidating, is probably going to discourage this kind of activity,” Wulkan said Tuesday. “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.”

Lopez said Wednesday he would work to bring the ordinance up for another vote in the near future, although he wasn’t sure exactly when.

The Southwest Side alderperson said he believes his City Council colleagues have had time to deliberate and weigh in on the measure since it was introduced in July.

“We’ve made plenty of opportunities for people to have their voices heard. It’d be nice if people would avail themselves of those opportunities,” Lopez said.

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