Take a book. Leave a book. Remake a book.

McCarthy,-Steven-3Have you ever walked past a Little Free Library, those house-shaped boxes along sidewalks filled with books? If so, did you look inside?

They’re often filled with books, and if you look at enough of them, you’ll see some of the same kinds of books start to repeat: romance novels, detective fiction, used children’s books, an odd cookbook. The libraries seem to fill with surplus. And most people walk right by.

But Steven McCarthy, a graphic design professor at the University of Minnesota who lives in Falcon Heights, rarely lets a Little Free Library go un-inspected.

For the last year, McCarthy has been working on a project of turning miscellaneous Little Free Library books into works of art. He calls it the Wee Go Library, and it’s his mobile collection of bizarre and whimsical books where pages have been turned upside-down or rearranged, bindings unbound and re-bound, and illustrations displaced and replaced into new and fantastical collages.

The project is housed in a beautiful mobile display case, and poring through its drawers and pages you find a “library” of creativity that seems to reveal the potential of the book itself.

Steven McCarthy, graphic design professor at the University of Minnesota. Photo by Lori Hamilton

Steven McCarthy, graphic design professor at the University of
Minnesota. Photo by Lori Hamilton

Book arts and found art

The concept of the “readymade” has a long history in art, beginning with French surrealist Marcel Duchamp and his (in)famous urinal titled “Fountain.” The idea is simple: any object can be a work of art if it is placed in the right context, framed in the right manner. There is beauty, grace and wonder in the things all around us.

The Wee Go Library is a literary variation on the practice, using books found in Little Free Libraries as a medium for creativity. The end result is a collection of unique art books that all came from the same mundane sources, the tiny libraries you see along the street.

“The project is to go to these people’s libraries, leave a book, take a book and make it into a more interesting book than the one that I found,” McCarthy said. “The books are all remixed, all altered in some way.” And each recreated book is mapped to its source.

As a professor and artist, McCarthy has been creating art books for years. His projects range from digital remixing of media classics, such as Marshall McLuhan’s Medium Is the Massage, to elaborate books that document electronic media. According to McCarthy, these projects explore what it means to make and read books in the 21st century, at a time when communication is rapidly changing.

McCarthy,-Steven-4McCarthy’s latest project explores the idea of surplus literature, those books that everyone seems to want to give away.

“In general I found few works of literature,” McCarthy explained, describing the books he found in the 22 libraries that were part of the project. “There were lots of how-to books, how to get rich or how to lose weight, recipe books, children’s books, some evangelical books, pulp fiction like Danielle Steele or Steven King. I didn’t see any I’d actually want to read, and in most cases the book I left behind was better than the book I got.”

Paging through them, McCarthy’s books can make you laugh out loud. One of them, a graphic novel about teenage vampires, features two red ribbons tied through twin holes punched through the entire book to make ribbons of bookish blood. Another, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, simply inverts the pages and the binding, so that you’re always reading the book upside-down. Many of the books are full of words and captions that have been cut from one page and added into another, to create mash-ups that reward careful attention.

“I destroyed it, but I remade it,” McCarthy said, describing one of his Wee Go books. “My rule with each book is that I could only make it from the book itself. I didn’t cross-pollinate. My rule is take it from an LFL and remix it from within itself through collage, tearing, cutting, rearranging.”

Each book contains a little map and description of where McCarthy found it. Some were taken from an elementary school in Minneapolis, others from middle-class and affluent neighborhoods, where the Little Free Libraries are typically found in front of people’s homes. One of the books even came from the original Little Free Library in Hudson, Wis., where the artsy sidewalk library trend began.

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Probably the fanciest of the books is an old art catalog full of Picasso photographs that McCarthy found in a library just off Summit Avenue. The resulting book is like a modern-art kaleidoscope.

“It’s an exhibit catalog of a Picasso exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1957,” McCarthy said. “It was fun improving on Picasso. Different heads, put them on different bodies, take text from different locations. I think Picasso would approve, actually.”

McCarthy hasn’t made his Wee Go art books public quite yet. He hosted a semi-public exhibit at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts in June and invited the people who own the little libraries where he got the books. After that, it’s anybody’s guess where the mobile book library might end up. McCarthy’s other creative book projects have ended up in museums and art libraries around the country, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

In this Kindle-era, when books are becoming little more than pixels, there are deep questions raised by McCarthy’s project: What is a book in the first place? What makes it valuable? What are the limits of a book and the things that give it a coherent identity? These are questions McCarthy likes to play with.

“I harvested books from their libraries,” he said. “But once I possessed the books I can do whatever I want with them. It’s a trade. I left a perfectly good book. I took a book so I can do whatever I want with it. Who’s to say what’s more valuable?”

Next time you walk past a Little Free Library, take a moment to stop and check out what’s inside. Who knows? You might find one of the books that McCarthy has traded for his project. Or you might find the next page-turner for the beach this summer. What you do with it next is entirely up to you.

Bill Lindeke is an urban geographer and writer living in St. Paul.

    13 Responses

    1. Vanessa

      I do not take away from what this gentleman is doing, however to think one is superior is missing the intention and joy of the front yard libraries – to instill an appreciation for books, to promote reading and the importance of books in the young ones include little children, early readers and teens, to give easy access to books for those who cannot afford books or never thought to invest in them, and most of all to cultivate and nurture a sense of community around the books.
      I have a front yard library at our home in Australia and the most beautiful thing my chlidren, husband and I have taken from it is “community”. I started the library with an idea as to what it would hold, but it’s taken on a life of it’s own. I donated many titles, including 600 titles stored in the shed that I rotate when time permits, but people add their own books daily. Sometimes they are not to my taste and sit there for a long, long time. Sometimes the odd one needs to be re-homed. But for me to clear them all out and only keep what I deem required and worthy reading is ridiculous – I may as well have kept them on my bookshelf inside feeling high and mighty at my collection. Now I rummage through Salvos and Vinnies stores looking for titles that aren’t necessary to my liking, but to the tastes of those in MY community. I overheard my husband (not a fan of books!) say to a lovely visitor to our box – “I may have made the box but it was my wife’s idea and it was her box. That is until it became the community’s box – it belongs to everyone now”. And never a truer word spoken…

    2. Wow. As a former mail artist and appreciator of altered books, this sounded like a great idea. I’d be thrilled to get a well done altered book. On the other hand, as a LFL wannabe steward (except for our annoying sprinkler system), I can very easily see the other side and how some stewards would take this as an affront after they have painstakingly tried to keep their LFLs stocked. I’m mostly just discouraged that everything in the world is pretty much controversial. Humans just can’t get along. Period. No point in visualizing world peace, ain’t gonna happen.

    3. I love it! I too re-purpose print media, mostly from advertisements in magazines or direct mailings. I re-assemble letters, words, phrases and images, into new forms of expression. Our World is full of “noise” and to hold a book, created by artifacts of culturally diverse “noise”, can give rise to creative and analytical inquiry that inspires.

    4. don stryker

      I have added books to LFLs in the past, but never taken one out.

      One thing I am certain of is that once I put a book in a LFL, it is no longer mine. My hope is that people will enjoy what I’ve put in the libraries, and personally I am thrilled that Mr. McCarthy has found a way to create something new with them.

    5. Linda Harris

      Amid mass shootings, shaky world markets and all the other scary things out there, it’s interesting that re-designing a book about teenage vampires would produce such anger and name-calling (a book that someone put out for anyone to take). Might be time to take a deep breath and go read “Ulysses” again. Or “Europe on $5 a Day.” Or how about “Be Here Now”?

    6. Steven McCarthy

      I thought I would share this email I recently received, to show that not all Little Free Library owners or librarians are opposed to Wee Go Library:

      Dear Steven,
      I am a retired school librarian and active steward for Little Free Libraries in Eugene, Oregon. Your Wee Go Library project is of great interest to me. If I send to you one of our books, would you or a helper alter and return it to me? I would use it as a demonstration piece for the book arts class at Lane Community College and for my collaboration work with other LFL stewards.
      Thanks for the consideration.

      HC, Friendly Park Little Free Library

    7. Nancy Novak, MLS

      I’m in Mary Lindsey’s camp. My dream is to have an LFL in front of my house, and I am carefully considering what it should look like, what it will contain, how I will curate it, etc. After all, I am a degreed librarian. But what irked me was Mr. McCarthy’s arrogance – his belief that he always leaves a book better than what he takes. He decries the LFL collections he encounters as inferior, that they don’t contain true literature. I would hate to see him run a public library. One must not judge so sneeringly about how people approach reading and books. A bodice ripper fan might move through that genre, then pick up Tess of the D’Urbervilles next. And to lash out about children’s books was the last straw. If he witnessed the joy children experience when they find a book they like, or feel the heartbreak I feel when I encounter a kid who hates to read, he wouldn’t have said that. The passion of others has fueled his artistic talents, yet he bashes them. Does he not know the old adage, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you?” That Minor Prophets of Israel pamphlet actually looks pretty interesting.

    8. Kerry Geelen

      If you had altered books gathered by any other means I would not now be reading this article about Little Free Libraries. I’m glad you chose to include LFL in your project. It’s a wonderful movement made possible by people who give and give, and it deserves to be recognized. And if people also read that LFLs have a need for quality books, all the better! Perhaps it will inspire contributions.

    9. Mary Lindsey

      Mr. McCarthy, First of all, I didn’t lodge a complaint. I registered an objection. I call foul to your implied characterization of the Little Free Libraries as needing your artistic upgrade to achieve literary significance. I’ve always believed that any of us who achieve great things do so by standing the shoulders of giants who came before us. If you want to use the Little Free Libraries as your own cache of art supplies, by all means, feel free. You can’t steal something that is freely given, but for heaven’s sake don’t dismiss this worldwide effort as literally or literarily, irrelevant.

    10. Steven McCarthy

      In two weeks I will make a presentation and publish a paper about the Wee Go Library at the Political Imagination and the City: Processes and Collective Practices in Architecture and Design conference in Santiago, Chile. In it I will discuss Little Free Libraries as decentralized networks and works of vernacular architecture; books as artifacts, media and waste; notions of community and neighborhood; and artist’s bookmaking as critical response. The Wee Go Library mobile unit that the article discusses is really a portal to thinking about literacy, publishing, consumption, trade and artistic expression in the digital era.

      Leonid Taycher, a Google software engineer, posited that there were 129,864,880 unique book titles in the world as of 2010. When one considers the typical edition size of mass printed books, there are billions and billions of books worldwide. My intervention, given that I left a book at least as good as the book I “harvested,” does little to harm the efforts of those who wish to make and maintain Little Free Libraries. Would Ms. Lindsey complain if I had simply altered a book already in my possession?

    11. As a LFL Steward, I understand Mary’s wrath but do think that since he leaves a book for each book he takes, he is doing far more to help LFLs than most of my own clients. The same people seem to help me stock up (based on my log book) and based upon my viewing of my LFL from my front porch, the “always take, never leave” people tend to be the same week after week, too. I would be delighted if he came to my neck of the woods where we have four LFL’s within one mile, and take my outdated romance novels and replace them with a never-out-of-date classic. I have gone through twelve copies of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in six years, and could have gone through 24 more if I had found them!

    12. Mary Lindsey

      “What’s more valuable” is the backbreaking effort that has gone into creating and maintaining these little islands of literacy and community in neighborhood book deserts. Would this even be a story if McCarthy had not purloined his art supplies from the Little Free Libraries? Let him build one, watch over it, care with all his heart if it’s being used, scout yard sales and thrift stores for books to keep it filled, pester his own neighbors relentlessly for donations and let him just once experience what it’s like to see a neighborhood child open the door, find a book and treasure it! Then see how delighted he’d be to have someone come along who feels entitled to destroy for his own purposes and then bad mouth the very field he “harvests”.

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