Tiny Libraries and Nowhere Classrooms

We’ve entered an era of hyperobjects and microcosms. Plastic fills the ocean, and structures like capitalism are everywhere and nowhere, oppressive and debilitating. But their antidote may be the proliferation of small learning communities, gemlike chips off ivory towers.

The city of Victoria, where I live, is dotted by dovecote-size lending libraries on people’s front lawns. Further up my street, Arts and Crafts houses preface their intricate stories with these mini versions of themselves. The little lending libraries, like the houses, often feature prominent roofs and small-paned windows, and are painted in complementary colors. Bright curlicues and calligraphy invite passersby to take or leave a book. Even when public and university libraries closed down due to COVID-19, these small stores circulated tales and advice, history and dream.

Tiny libraries enchant me. I’ve always been enthralled by diminutive buildings—garden follies, gloriettes, gazebos, grottos, pavilions, and anchorites, along with compact worlds such as EPCOT Center or the Queen’s Hamlet at Versailles. Miniatures magnify wonder; their details stroke the senses. French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in his matchless book, The Poetics of Space, “Thus the miniscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.” Though Marie Antoinette had a wildly different purpose than a saint abiding in an anchorite, all of these structures prompt contemplation and delight, and they remind us of the overlap between the two.

I think tiny libraries are foundations for our future, both metaphorically and actually. We need to see the joy and beauty in doing more with less, and locate the sacred in the small. Tiny libraries don’t just leave a negligible carbon footprint; they also upend power hierarchies. Communities share books rather than wait for a municipal or university library to order resources for them.

Similarly, online classrooms have troubled power dynamics within academia. They have increased opportunities for historically underserved populations to pursue an education and given all of their students agency. In online classes, the student becomes more responsible for their own learning. The instructor facilitates it, but in the best-case scenario, the lessons are a partnership between students and teachers through discussion forums and multimedia collaborations. Indigenous activists insist on the importance of reprogramming and restructuring academic institutions for the purpose of decolonization, another cornerstone of recent pedagogy. Online courses, I believe, will play an important role in this project, and others, long after COVID-19 returns many of us to traditional classrooms.

What if classrooms were as ubiquitous and inclusive as streetside, tiny libraries?