Registered Little Free Library puts Elgin on the map

February 01, 2013 09:27 am

by Trish Yerges / Observer Correspondent

ELGIN -  Literacy advocate and retired math teacher Bob Thomas has built and installed a registered "Little Free Library" at Elgin's Subway store at 84 North Eighth Avenue, the first to put Elgin on the world map.  

The Little Free Library is a community project where free books are available in book exchange boxes conveniently placed around town.  People go to the box, take a book they want to read and after reading it, they can return it or exchange it for another book they have from home.  The box's registered steward maintains the box with books.
Bob Thomas heard about it on the news and visited their homepage at to get building instructions to make one to place somewhere in Elgin.   
"I needed something to do over the winter," said Thomas.
He's being modest, of course, because Thomas has been an ambitious advocate for literacy in his hometown for the past six years.  He spearheaded the introduction of the highly successful "Ninety Percent Reading Goal" program to the Elgin School District.  Their efforts paid off because today nearly 90 percent of Stella Mayfield's third grade students are reading at third grade level, a significant improvement from the former 50 percent record.
But the story doesn't end there.  Thomas has since been on a mission to provide free books to children whenever possible.   Every summer Elgin residents will see Thomas wearing his Derby and riding his Boneshaker bicycle around town, pulling behind him a cart of books to give away.  Then in June at the annual Elgin Riverfest, he and Susie host a book fair in front of Stella Mayfield school with more free books for children. 
Last year he made book cases for a class of young students at Stella Mayfield, and now he's the steward of his very public Little Free Library. 
Thomas paid a $35 registration fee to get his box number 4629 on the world map which can be viewed at .  Zoom in on the map and the stats on Thomas' box will pop up, including photos of the box in use, the exact location's address and gps coordinates. 
More than 4,000 Little Free Library boxes are on this map in communities around the world, but it appears that Thomas' box is the only registered box in Northeast Oregon.  The next closest registered boxes are in Walla Walla, the Tri Cities and in Boise.
The concept of Little Free Libraries started in 2010 with Todd Bol from Madison, Wisconsin. 
"He made one and stuck it in his mother's front yard," said Thomas.  "Then his neighbor saw it and asked how he could get one, so then it started spreading.  Bol set a goal to make at least 2,510 of them because Andrew Carnegie's goal was to make at least 2,510 free community libraries.  Now Bol is up to 4,629 registered ones and maybe more unregistered ones."
If anyone wants to buy one or build one, the website has the rough dimensions listed there.  Thomas went online to learn how to build his box. 
"They like you to make the boxes out of recycled materials," said Thomas, "so I made mine out of some honey bee supers, and a roof of copper fashioned after an English hivery.  The door handle is a bee keeper's hive tool.  The front of the door has plexi glass."
It ended up in the Subway shop because Thomas piqued the interest of the shop owner Brock Eckstein.
"Subway's owner is one of my previous students," said Thomas, "so I came to him and asked him to go on the Internet and go on  That's all I told him.  The next day when he was delivering sandwiches to school, he saw Susie and told her he went on that website, and he said he would like to have one of those in his shop."  
Thomas brought the box in and installed it in the dining area of the Subway store.  It's attractive and arouses curiosity among the patrons.  
"What I like about it is that it builds a sense of community and promotes literacy," said Thomas, "so everybody shares books---kind of a community effort to promote literacy." 
Projects like this one have made a positive impact on literacy in the Elgin School District.
"The superintendant spoke with me recently, and he said, 'What you guys have done, (the Read to Succeed committee and Susie and I doing books in the summer) has made a big difference in the reading level of our elementary kids,'" Thomas related.
Now that Elgin is on the global map for a Little Free Library, Thomas said he may make one more book exchange box, but then he will move on to another project.   If anyone wants to know how to build them, he said he would be happy to share what he knows.  After all, he's still a teacher at heart.