Manatee County creates model for local Little Free Library program

MANATEE/SARASOTA -- When Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Department develops a successful program, they don't mind sharing the initiatives with others.

Manatee County has shared its Little Free Library program, which operates on the policy of "take a book, return a book" in some of the county's parks and preserves, with Sarasota County.

"It's been very exciting because different organizations recognize the success we've had with this program and realize that we didn't start two libraries and walk away," said Melissa Nell, division manager of the volunteer and education division for Manatee parks. "Our mentality is this is what we do here and we would love for you to bring it to other sites, as well."

Manatee County staff created a presentation for surrounding counties about this organization, which has about 15,000 Little Free Libraries around the world. And, thanks to Manatee County's presentation, the Florida Parks Service and Sarasota County have put Little Free Librar

ies in several parks.

Little Free Libraries have been installed in five Sarasota parks: Longwood Park, Twins Lakes Park, Urfer Family Park, Colonial Oaks Park and Shamrock Park. And the county plans to add more.

"It's been a wonderful response from the community so far," Sarasota County sustainability manager Lee Hayes Byron said. "There is a lot of interest, particularly in the ones near playgrounds."

Manatee County was instrumental in launching the libraries at Sarasota County facilities for the first time, Hayes Byron noted.

"We really took their lessons learned and were able to move much more quickly as a result," she said.

With the libraries, the county has been able to get new people into the parks. Three Sarasota County departments -- libraries and historical resources; parks, recreation and natural resources; and Sarasota County UF/IFAS Extension and Sustainability -- partnered on the project.

"For us, it has really been an incredible experience of achieving goals of multiple county departments in a new way," she said. "We are also building community. It really is a conversation starter and hopefully we are building connections within our community."

Nell has watched the number of Little Free Libraries in Manatee County grow, as well. The program was started in 2012 by New College of Florida student intern Nick Shaffer at Robinson Preserve and Emerson Point Preserve.

"Our libraries here in Manatee County have gotten on board with this program, which is fantastic," Nell said. "We wanted to make sure it wasn't just our department doing this. We really emphasize and support working across all departments."

In December, the county opened its sixth Little Free Library at Conservatory Park in East Manatee. There are now Little Free Libraries in Manatee at Emerson Point Preserve, Robinson Preserve, Greenbrook Park, Bennett Park, Jiggs Landing and Conservatory Park.

"We really enjoy having the opportunity to try out these new initiatives in Manatee County parks and preserves," Nell said. "It really excites us to see them expand to neighboring counties and statewide."

Mary Lou McFate, senior society president of ChiChi-Okobee Society, Children of the American Revolution, contacted Manatee County about adding the library at Conservatory Park. The society, which draws children from both counties, raised money for the library's materials and books.

"This is awesome because these are local kids and they get to point to the site and say 'We made this happen' and stock it with books when they are done with it," Nell said.

About 15 children worked on the Manatee County's latest Little Free Library.

"To contribute something to their county for both adults and children was a wonderful idea," McFate said. "I think what's unique about this Little Free Library is that the bottom shelf is for children's books and the top is for adults."

Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Department will hold a dedication ceremony of Conservatory Park at 1 p.m. Feb. 28. After the dedication, children will read stories about the park's Pine Habitat and go on a literacy hike.

"We will tie in the reading with nature," Nell said.

Claire Aronson, University Parkway/Sarasota reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at caronson@bradenton.com. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.

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