A local nonprofit plans to place 15 little free libraries in city of Tulsa parks as early as the spring. Little free libraries are popping up all over the world, but Tulsa would be among the first cities in the country to extend the concept to public parks. The little free library pictured above is in a residential neighborhood near 31st Street and Harvard Avenue. KEVIN CANFIELD/The Frontier

Stephanie Younis was walking through a neighborhood park in North Little Rock, Ark., earlier this year when she looked up and saw a birdhouse.

This birdhouse was different, though, for there were no birds inside. Only books. Children’s books.

Back in Tulsa, strolling through Turner Park one day, she began to think about the birdhouse without the birds.

“How awesome would it be if there was a little free library here,” she recalled thinking, “because there are so many people that either just come through the park walking kids or that are hanging out at the park, and so we decided to establish this nonprofit to hopefully bring these little free libraries to Tulsa.”

And that’s exactly what she and her friend, Zuzana Chovanec, did. It’s called Transporting Education & Literacy into Open Spaces, Inc., or T.E.L.O.S., Inc.

Younis and Chovanec presented their idea to the Tulsa Park and Recreation board earlier this month, saying the pilot program would target 15 city parks. The hope is to raise enough money and gather enough books to begin installing the little free libraries in parks in the spring.

“One of our primary objectives is to address the literacy gap in Tulsa,” Chovanec told Park Board members. “This is a significant problem in this area, with one in six adults operating with a very basic level of literacy. So our view is that how to address that is we need to start at childhood.”

Tulsa Little Free Libraries would work like other book-sharing programs popping up across the country. The nonprofit would provide the initial stock of books, and neighborhood residents would be borrow and contribute books to keep it going.

Working with Parks Director Lucy Dolman, Younis and Chovanec visited each of the parks selected to be part of the pilot program. The parks are near low-performing elementary schools or in areas with limited access to library services, or both.

The Tulsa Little Free Libraries initiative is intended to serve another purpose: to improve Tulsa’s parks. Citing research on what makes a great open space, Chovanec pointed to what she described as the “Power of 10.”

“The idea is that a dynamic open space, whether that be a park, a museum … really requires 10 forms of activity,” Chovanec said. “So we are sort of viewing the Little Free Library as an added element.”

The Historic Owen Park neighborhood and Owen Park itself are great examples of that concept, she said.

“It (the park) has a splash pad, there is Discovery Lab, there is a playground,” Chovanec said. “There are all kinds of community (activities), as well as a Little Free Library.”

Little free libraries can be found in several Tulsa neighborhoods, and worldwide there are more than 20,000 in 70 countries, according to littlefreelibrary.org. But Younis said Tulsa Free Little Libraries would be unique — at least in the United States.

“We are looking to be the first city in the country to really bring these … into public parks,” she said.

Jonathan Townsend, assistant to the mayor for community development and policy, said the program aligns perfectly with what Mayor G.T. Bynum and his staff are trying to accomplish.

“Which is to get everyone throughout the city of Tulsa to embrace the idea that we are all stakeholders in education,” Townsend said. “Whether we have kids in the system or not, we can all make a difference and we can all be creative in finding ways to raise our level of literacy throughout our city.”

Townsend said programs like Tulsa Little Free Libraries can help create a sense of neighborhood identity, boost neighborhood morale and foster a sense of responsibility among residents.

“We have seen other neighborhoods where sites have really inspired people to take ownership and pride in it, make sure it’s not vandalized,” Townsend said. “You would be surprised. Sometimes, when you see little projects like this, it makes a drastic difference in particular communities and gives people something positive to do.”

Younis and Chovanec estimate it will cost approximately $15,000 to put the pilot program together.

“Once our nonprofit status goes through, which we expect to happen in October, we are going to begin our fundraising from the public,” Chovanec said this week. “Other than that, we will look to make corporate sponsorships an avenue as well as different grants that are geared toward literacy and education.”

Chovanec, an adjunct faculty member at Tulsa Community College, plans to enlist students in her service-learning courses to help implement the program. The students will assist in a number of ways, including doing research, helping recruit stewards to stock and maintain the free little libraries, and holding a book drive.

“That is one immediate source of the books,” Chovanec said. “We had talked with Lucy and other people at the Mayor’s Office who were interested in having a book drive there as well.”

Dolman said the Parks Department knows exactly where each Little Free Library will be placed in each park.

“We have found locations on every playground, so there is a little patch, and we are going to put them in so parents sitting down to watch their children play, they can access books pretty easily,” she said. “The thought being, they can read right there or take something home.”

To learn more about the Tulsa Little Free Libraries program, or to donate money or books, email Stephanie Younis at stephanie.younis@outlook.com, or Zuzana Chovanec at zuzana.chovanec@gmail.com. Younis can also be reached at 918-304-1929.

To see the Tulsa Little Free Libraries presentation viewed by the Park Board, go to https://prezi.com/p/idekmvk1tah8/