At a time when many cannot visit traditional libraries in-person, one local family is doing a “little” something to make sure reading materials are still accessible for all.
The Wadler family recently launched Grandma Karen’s Book Share, which uses Little Free Libraries to create reading opportunities for local families.
When Karen Wadler, the family’s matriarch, passed away in June of 2020, family members started to think of ways to honor her memory and passion for reading and simultaneously give back to the community.
Karen spent 40 years as an educator and librarian in various communities around the North Shore. One of the project’s goals is to bring libraries and books to families even during a time when they can’t physically go to one.
Grandma Karen’s Book Share started out in Glencoe late last year, when the family both sponsored existing Little Free Libraries and created several new ones throughout the community.
Jason Wadler, Karen’s son and a longtime Glencoe resident, said the family sought to first bring the initiative to communities that held personal significance to the family.
Shortly after Glencoe, the program made its way to Deerfield, where the family grew up. Locations were also then set up in Highland Park and Northbrook, both places where Karen taught for years, and then Lincolnshire, where Karen lived with her husband, Jeff.
The little libraries in Glencoe are located at Wyman Green, Woodlawn Park, Friends Park, Lakefront Park and the Takiff Center.
To determine the most accessible areas in the initial communities, the Wadlers worked with local park districts to identify places of great opportunity for families. Then they worked with the local public library in each community to help with book selection.
The family also purchased books from Scholastic and is partnering with the local nonprofit Bernie’s Book Bank to make sure the libraries always have a fresh and updated supply of books.
Each book inside the library is wrapped in a biodegradable bag to make sure safety is a top priority during the pandemic, the Wadlers said.
Jeff said that each library started out with approximately 30 books and after a couple of days he already had to refill them because roughly 20 books were gone.
Right now, the family has 25 libraries already committed, Jason said, adding that more are on the way soon.
“By the end of summer next year, we should have somewhere between 50 to 75 active, within those communities and expanding into other communities,” he said.
And although Grandma Karen’s Book Share commenced as a local program, the Wadlers have plans to further expand it in the near future.
“We wanted to establish this for my mom locally, in the areas that the family touched and that she personally touched,” Jason said. “But there is a broader opportunity to help families in underserved communities and so the next step … once we complete what we’re doing around the north shore, is to take this further into underserved communities around Illinois. We’re also talking about doing things around the country with the Little Free Libraries organization.”
Throughout her four decades in education, Karen spent time teaching in Fremont School District 79 in Mundelein and North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park. She also taught at Northbrook’s Congregation Beth Shalom, where she helped establish and build out its library.
“Her love and her passion was working with children,” said Jeff Wadler, Karen’s husband. “She loved working with children and of course, as a librarian, she did it through books. … That was what she loved to do. She loved children, she loved reading and she loved books, and we brought all of those together with the concept of these little libraries. What a fitting way to honor her.”
After she retired, Karen continued her lifelong joy of helping others by volunteering at the Vernon Area Public Library in Lincolnshire teaching English as a Second Language.
Once warmer weather arrives, the Wadlers are planning to host reading-based events and partnering with additional local businesses.
“The whole goal is to be a fabric of the community,” Jason said.
The family has a fund established under the Wisconsin-based Little Free Library organization that already has more than $35,000 worth of donations. Jason said the funding will help the next round of libraries, accessing more books and assisting in future events.
Donations can be made to www.littlefreelibrary.org/donate. The donation, if desired, should be “In honor of Grandma Karen” to ensure it is correctly managed, the organization’s Facebook page says.
Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.