Anchorage, Alaska Police Union Recycling Campaign Signs Into Little Libraries

ANCHORAGE, AK – In police officer Barry Hetlet’s garage-turned-workshop Friday, sawdust and pieces of wood rested near a stack of black, yellow and red campaign signs.

Left over from this month’s election, the “No on 1 — Repeal 37” signs were a ubiquitous sight in Anchorage during the successful union-backed effort to repeal a major rewrite of city labor law, Anchorage Ordinance 37. The day after the election, union members gathered as many as they could, largely removing reminders of an expensive, bitter race.

But the signs soon may be returning to Anchorage’s front lawns — just not in the form you’d expect. On the other side of Hetlet’s workshop stood a blue-and-white wooden box on a stand, with about 10 books on shelves inside.

The Anchorage Police Department Employees Association is in the process of recycling AO-37 sign materials into “little lending libraries.”

The very first “Upcycled Little Lending Library,” built by Hetlet, will be unveiled to the public Saturday at Police Navidad, a free community event at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The hope is to create many more and find community sponsors to help build and distribute them.

Miniature libraries have already found homes in a handful of Anchorage neighborhoods, from Airport Heights to Westchester Lagoon to Turnagain. The idea emerged in 2009 in the form of a miniature schoolhouse in Wisconsin and a sign that read “FREE BOOKS.” Little Free Libraries grew first into a nonprofit, then a movement, spreading to dozens of countries around the world.

The concept is simple: Neighbors share with neighbors. You take a book and leave one in return.

For members of the local police union, recycling sign materials into libraries puts a positive twist on an acrimonious, stressful political saga. Unions poured significant energy and resources into defeating the Sullivan administration’s labor law rewrite in the referendum vote, Ballot Measure 1. In mid-October, the “No on 1” signs themselves became a flashpoint, with the heavily outspent “Yes on 1” campaign replicating the design to mix up voters.

“It’s making something good out of something not all that tasteful, frankly,” said Gerard Asselin, treasurer of the police union and a driving force behind building the little libraries.

The suggestion originally came from APD senior patrol officer Angelina Fraize, who said she first noticed Little Free Libraries while on a trip to Seattle. The day after the Nov. 4 election, union members retrieved more than 100 signs and began disassembling them into piles of wood, plastic, bolts, screws and washers.

As fellow officers were wondering what to do with the mountain of sign materials, Fraize mentioned the little libraries, at first as a joke. Then the idea stuck.

Along with a goal of building about 15 little libraries by next spring, Fraize envisions creating a building kit that can be distributed to members of the public. The union is looking for sponsorship to help build the libraries, such as a local Girl Scout or Boy Scout troop.

For now, Hetlet, a former construction subcontractor and the son of a cabinetmaker, is the designated little-library carpenter. He estimated it took less than 10 hours to build the first one, sawing wood two-by-fours and cutting up the signboard to make shelves. Another piece of signboard, a barrier against wet weather, sits on top of the box.

“Everything on it, other than the hinges and the plexiglass, was reused,” Hetlet said, standing next to his creation. While it’s “police-colored,” blue and white, Hetlet said he expects future little libraries he builds to be more earth-toned.

Hetlet placed his own books inside — a Spanish dictionary, a Civil War novel — as examples. He said, with a laugh, that he’d like them back.

“It’s a positive thing, recycling, promoting reading,” Hetlet said. “I think it’s something everybody can appreciate.”

From The Anchorage Daily News