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Five Questions about Laundromat Libraries

Cameron Dunn, a high school junior in Massachusetts, started the Laundromat Libraries project to share his love of reading with kids who might not have ready access to books. I asked him about how he turned a great idea into reality and what he’s learned since launching his project. (Thanks to nonprofit Melrose Kind and Maribeth Darwin for bringing Cam and his work to our attention! )


1. What led you to see a connection between families in laundromats and the need for access to books?


We have several laundromats in my town, and I have often noticed families waiting for their clothes to be ready, with the kids usually playing on cell phones. I have always loved to read, and it struck me that laundromats provide a captive audience for the time it takes to wash, dry, and fold clothes, typically at least two hours and often on a weekly basis. Childhood literacy is a huge problem: 61% of low-income families have no children’s books in their homes, and one in two poor American children start kindergarten without the language skills necessary to learn to read. Reading is a key to success inside and outside the classroom, and I thought that books in laundromats might encourage families and children to read.


I am not the first to come up with this idea. In 2018 Susan Neuman, a professor of childhood and literacy education at New York University, studied a literacy program at six New York laundromats. She found that children who had access to these books spent an average of forty-seven minutes per visit reading. Neuman concluded that programs like this can be successful in “book deserts” or communities that lack access to books. The Little Free Libraries people place in their yards do not address the issue of unequal access, since these libraries tend to be in more affluent neighborhoods. Families who do their laundry at laundromats are likely to have lower incomes and are less likely to have ready access to reading materials.


I felt that this project would be a small step toward bridging the literacy gap. I set up little libraries in three laundromats near/in my hometown of Melrose, Massachusetts, and three in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where I am a junior at Boston College High School.


2. Having the idea is one thing, but how did you put it into action? 


I mapped out the laundromats and then called or stopped by each one to see if the managers would allow me to start a small library. I met with the head librarian at the Melrose (MA) Public Library to find out how I could purchase new books at a discounted rate. At first, I thought I would build the libraries myself, but I realized it would be easier to use plastic book-display bins, which I bought online. I calculated how much it would cost to buy the bins, books, and signs for the project.


I did not know which languages to focus on, so I made a sign that I translated into French, Spanish, Mandarin, and Arabic: “Laundromat Library / Read while you are here / Take a book home to enjoy / Pass the book along to another child / Enjoy reading!” I made sure the bins had an assortment of books from each language for a variety of ages, from newborn to teen. I have circled back to the laundromats to replenish the book supplies every four to six weeks and have a better understanding of what’s spoken at each site. It has been really interesting to see which books have been taken. Spanish and Mandarin books are very popular at some laundromats; all the Arabic books have been taken at each site. I realized that one of the laundromats serves a number of Vietnamese customers, so I plan to add books in Vietnamese there.  


3. What sort of funding did you obtain for the project?


I was really grateful to receive funding from two sources: $500 from the Martin Richard Foundation and $1000 from the Melrose Rotary Club. Martin Richard was the little boy who was killed in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. I have always felt a connection to him because I was seven in 2013, so very close in age to him. My mom ran the marathon that year, and after my family cheered my mom along at the midway point in Wellesley, my dad took us for ice cream (I was hungry and cranky). That delayed our getting to the finish line, and because of that, we were not there when the bombs went off. The loss of Martin Richard’s life was absolutely devastating to my family, because that could have so easily happened to us. I made my First Communion a few weeks after the marathon, and the photo in the news of Martin in his white communion suit was in my mind. Martin’s parents started a foundation, and they provide grants for youth-led service projects through their Bridge Builders Campaign. I made stickers for the books saying, “In memory of Martin Richard. No more hurting people, peace”—which is something he’d written on a poster; a photo of Martin and his poster were in the news at the time.


The head librarian from Melrose mentioned that the Rotary Club has grants for community outreach projects, so I completed their application and was very excited to obtain funds from them as well. I was able to give a presentation to the Rotary Club this past August about how the project has been going. This was a wonderful opportunity to meet some of the community leaders in Melrose and get some more ideas about how to expand and improve the project. I have used every single dollar in making the bins, signs, stickers, bookmarks, and purchasing books.


4. When you return to visit the laundromats, what have you found?


I have been doing a careful tally/inventory of books placed and taken at each site. I try to keep about fifty books in each bin. I have noticed an inverse correlation between median household income and number of books taken. Every time I return to check on the bins, nearly all the books are taken at the laundromats in Dorchester, where the median household income is $47,200. In Melrose, where the median household income is $114,604, often hardly any of the books are taken. However, this does not account for what I call the “rifling factor.” Even if only a few books have been taken, I always notice that the books have been rifled through, which is good in and of itself.


5. What’s next for Laundromat Libraries?


I continue to check in on my bins every month or so. I am starting a club at my school, in which members will bring bin-libraries to laundromats in their local communities. Students from all over Boston and outlying towns attend my school, so I hope we are able to bring libraries to many different communities. We will organize a gently used book drive and a fundraiser to purchase supplies. Also, we will create a map to demonstrate the extent of our outreach and will meet to discuss our progress, findings, and observations.

Kitty Flynn

Kitty Flynn is reviews editor for The Horn Book, Inc.

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