Expansion of free libraries for kids proves popular in east Salem

Salem’s two city libraries leave most of north and east Salem without a nearby branch. The East Salem Rotary Club decided to bridge the gap with nine free libraries at schools, community centers and other places catering to kids, stocking more than 6,000 books.

Ken Morin, East Salem Rotary member, setting up the Little Free Library he built for the Oregon Department of Human Services Self Sufficiency Office in east Salem. (East Salem Rotary)

When Maureen Casey got the idea to help East Salem Rotary Club plant a series of miniature libraries around the area, she thought they might improve local kids’ access to books and help with their literacy skills.

She wasn’t prepared, however, for how popular the Little Library program would be.

“The Little Libraries, oh my gosh. They just exceeded our expectations,” Casey said. “We were having to replenish the libraries on a weekly basis. We knew they would be popular, but we had no idea the usage would be what it was.”

The libraries themselves are really just enclosed hutches with miniature doors – they almost look like fancy birdhouses. Each of the 10 locations scattered across east Salem can hold around 25 to 40 children’s books at any given time.

They opened to the public in September of 2020, just as parents of young kids worried about reading skills stagnating during pandemic school closures. Since then, the Rotary club has restored more than 6,000 books. Some are filled a couple times a month, while the more popular sites rotate their stock every week.

“Anybody can come by and take a book,” fellow Rotary club member Morgan Davis said. “They’re not necessarily bringing back the books, which you would traditionally see in a library. That’s what we want – for them to have books in their home.”

A little free library at St. Vincent De Paul school on Northeast Columbia Street on Thursday, March 3. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The organization specifically placed the libraries in east Salem because many residents of the area live further from the city’s literacy resources. The main Salem Public Library is located squarely on the west side of town, off of Southeast Commercial Street. The city’s only branch library is across the bridge in west Salem.

For a family that lives in one of the many apartment complexes surrounding Northgate Park, for instance, the traditional library isn’t exactly walkable.

“There is a significant number of families who reside in East Salem who are economically disadvantaged, also there’s a pretty significant achievement gap,” Casey said. “We knew literacy was a big priority.”

During the early months of the pandemic, when many parents shouldered an unprecedented share of their children’s education, access to an abundance of books was crucial.

“For language development for kids, research shows that early reading, especially, builds vocabulary and it’s one of the most important ways to develop cognitive skills,” Davis said.

It’s also just fun. Casey recounted a recent book dropoff at the homeless shelter at St. Vincent de Paul Society, during which a young mom gleefully snagged a “Baby Shark” book from the top of the pile.

“She said, ‘You are going to make my daughter so happy!’” Casey said.

“It’s not just a matter of helping with literacy. This book brought joy to this mom and little girl who are facing all kinds of challenges,” she continued. “How much more meaningful can it get? I don’t know. It’s really fulfilling a need in the community.”

The Little Libraries can be found in the following locations:

Boys and Girls Club – Swegle Branch. 4445 Market St. NE

· East Salem Community Center. 1850 45th Ave. NE

· Oregon Child Development Coalition & Lutheran Redeemer Church. 4611 Lancaster Dr NE

· New Harvest Church. 4290 Portland Rd. NE

· Northgate Park’s Northgate and Fairhaven entrances. 3575 Fairhaven Ave. NE

· Oregon Department of Human Services: Winema Self-Sufficiency Office. 4074 Winema Place, Suite 100

· Seymour Child and Family Resource Center-Catholic Community Services. 3737 Portland Rd. NE

· St. Vincent de Paul Elementary School. 1015 Columbia St. NE

· Church at the Park Managed Shelter. 3745 Portland Rd. NE

To donate new or gently used children’s books, schedule a dropoff or pickup appointment by emailing [email protected] People can also mail a check with the memo line “Little Free Libraries” to East Salem Rotary Foundation, 2009 State St. Salem, OR. 97301.

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