How about a Free Little Shippable Library?

November 20, 2012

I recently met with Rick Brooks, the dynamic co-founder of Little Free Libraries, a magical little non-profit based right here in Madison that has been getting a lot of press lately. The group’s mission is to promote literacy and the love of reading, and to build a sense of community by building more than 2510 libraries around the world. Currently, Little Free Library builds and ships a few different designs, all made out of wood or composite, and fully assembled. These are beautiful little creations and people love them, but they are all pricey, slow to build, and very difficult (read: expensive) to ship.

Rick and a group of Design Concepts’ folks got together to try and solve this problem, which was a huge barrier to getting these libraries out in the world. We decided to brainstorm solutions for two distinct issues:

  • Clever ways to simplify the manufacturing of the Little Free Libraries
  • Designing lighter libraries that can be broken down for shipping

We first started discussing materials, because the current heavy boards were causing both issues. We were particularly intrigued by two materials: thick, corrugated cardboard and Coroplast corrugated polypropylene sheet. For inspiration, we were drawn to this cardboard bike (which has been getting a lot of press lately), which shows how an inexpensive and light
material can be transformed into something beautiful and durable. Though cardboard is intriguing, the effort required to weatherproof it is a bit daunting. We decided to work on a ship-flat Coroplast design that could be quickly prototyped so we could see if the idea has legs.

Here, Rick raised a valid concern that a mass-produced plastic library might lose the magic of the current models. A few of the adjectives he uses to describe them are cute, crafted, customizable, and high-quality. A plastic offering would struggle to maintain those, though they would be instantly recognizable, something any good brand strives for. Could there be any way a thin sheet of corrugated plastic could become an alternative? After building out first prototype, the jury is still sequestered and I think they may be there for a while.

These are beautiful little creations and people love them, but they are all pricey, slow to build, and very difficult (read: expensive) to ship.

If I had to pinpoint a handful of criteria that drove the first design they may be:

  • Get it as light as possible
  • Get it to pack as flat and as small as possible
  • Keep it cute
  • Take advantage of the materials modern feel and pair it with a modern style
  • Make it easy to assemble

So after a brainstorm, here’s what we came up with:

It is intended to be die-cut out of a 4’ x 8’ piece of 4mm thick Coroplast with the bend lines pre-creased. Convenience or serendipity required us to use smaller pieces that fit onto the material we had at hand.
But seeing as this was a prototype, it wasn’t going to be die- or laser-cut. After plotting the flat pattern and gluing it to the plastic, we worked a box cutter slowly along the cut lines. A few hours later the pieces were put together.

The Power of Prototyping Part 1

Here is where the power of prototyping first starts paying dividends, letting you realize the design mistakes you’ve made and the stuff you just don’t know about materials. Here are just a few things that were obvious after the build and things that clear packing tape solved for the time being.

The Power of Prototyping Part 2

The flaws were not fatal, so it was time to mount the prototype, fill it with books and start the next powerful prototyping stage – getting feedback from “users”.
Does that plastic come in something other than white?In this case the users are my neighbors. A few of the immediate questions were:

  • Will it melt in the summer?
  • How do you open it?
  • Will the books get wet?
  • You can’t see inside.

The Power of Prototyping Part 3
There are a couple little inspirations that happened in the course of building and installing the prototype. First, I was planning on cutting a hole in the roof of the library to mount a solar light. I had second thoughts since I was worried about the gap it would make. Instead, I decided to enlarge the eyes and put two in. There was no need to enlarge the holes – the lights were a perfect, snug fit!
Second, the plastic is slick enough to be a dry erase surface, so I turned the roof and side into a bulletin board and asked for feedback on the prototype. We’ll see what people say.

We’ll let you know if and when Prototype 2 arrives… maybe in brown.