A few years ago, Ruth Arnison, a woman from Dunedin, had an unusual idea for a library – small, brightly painted cabinets filled with free books for anyone to borrow, borrow or donate.
She called them Lilliput Libraries and placed 10 of them around the city – wondering if they would be used.
Fast forward eight years and you can find Lilliput libraries all over New Zealand, with the newly created number 303 at Kaikorai Valley College.
Lilliput Libraries grew out of a range of other community projects that Arnison is involved in with the aim of spreading joy.
The former librarian loves poetry and has tried the English version of Poems in the Waiting Room – handing out poetry cards in hospices, hospitals, prisons and nursing homes – as well as painting poetry on public steps .
His goal was to make poetry less intimidating. more accessible.
“I think school maybe put a lot of people off poetry because you had to sit and read poems full of you, and a thousand, and from where and whatever, so I’m trying to say that it is not like that, it is changed.
“I have another little one called Pocket Poetry, which is like a business card, I put a photo on one side and on the other I put an excerpt [from a] poem and I just put them in cafes and shops in Dunedin and people can just pick one up, put it in their pocket and go home.
“I find poetry to be very good if you really feel something and put it into poetry, nobody needs to see it… it’s just an outlet for the emotions, a pretty safe place.
“I get a few comments from people like they have it on their fridge or they use it as a bookmark or they keep it in their purse just so they know it’s there just in case. they would have a time when they would feel like [they want] something comforting.
She got her idea for Lilliput Libraries after her son saw something similar, but on a larger scale, in Melbourne.
“I tentatively asked a few people and they just put them on their fences, and I had an artist paint them and they just peeled off.
“After we had 100 in the community I decided it was getting too much because I was also funding them through my charity so I just told people if you want one you can paint it, here is the blueprint, you get it built.
“From there, what happened was people might have painted it themselves, they might have had a neighbor paint them, or they had the schools to painting them, which made it more of a communal thing.”
The residents who created the library end up being the “custodians” who are responsible for its upkeep, she says.
“Every day they [the books] change, because people take them out, put them back in, and the keepers who take care of them, they keep swapping them out too to keep them fresh.
“It’s so much more than the books too, Kathryn, it’s like we have this gentleman walking a dog and the purpose of the walk is to find a new Lilliput, or we walk people down the street with a book and someone else will say ‘oh you been to Lilliput?’ and it starts a conversation.
There are 17 Lilliput libraries in the North Island, two in Queensland and 192 in Dunedin.
Arnison supports those who set one up in Dunedin through the process and provides them with books if they run out, thanks to friendly donations left outside his door from time to time.
“We also have a Resene color store in Dunedin, and they have a bin there that I empty every week so people can just drop in books they don’t want anymore.
“You have to focus on very good quality books because it’s often a bit of a dumping ground for yellow and torn books that people want to get rid of… [Donate] the ones you’d be happy to pick up and read, not manuals and not manuals on how to operate your microwave.
The most popular are fiction novels and children’s books, she says.
“We don’t have enough children’s books. They leave and don’t come back often, which is fine, if the kids are reading, I don’t care.