Shaye Kirman, a rising high school senior, has created the Free Ukraine Library (freeukrainelibrary.org), a project to provide free books to customers of local coffee shops and other businesses, in order to help people learn more about the culture and history of Ukraine.
To create the library, Shaye repurposes unused shoeboxes, which he decorates with Free Ukraine Library’s logos, in the blue and yellow colors of Ukraine’s flag. Each box, or “library branch,” contains five books about Ukraine’s unique identity—cultural, literary, and historical. Each box is a different collection of books, and in addition to the more typical fare of novels and history books, some boxes include photo books, children’s books, cookbooks, and even Ukrainian language books. Customers can take a book for free and either return it or pass it along to a friend.
According to Shaye, “When the war broke out in 2022, many people rushed to help Ukraine—clothes, food, money. I wanted to do something different, so I turned to the tool I knew best as a student—books. I wanted to learn more about Ukraine as an independent country and to share that knowledge with others.”
Shaye minimizes costs by repurposing unused or donated shoeboxes to serve as the “library.” Each box of books costs approximately $75 to $100, and Shaye is actively fundraising (with email appeals and through the Free Ukraine Library website) to fund the cost of the books. In September, he is planning a book drive to increase his book inventory. Free Ukraine Library is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so all donations are tax deductible.
To date, Free Ukraine Library has set up 20 libraries in New York City, Long Island, Westchester, and Connecticut, and has this week expanded its presence in Long Island with five new “branches”: two in Riverhead (Sarikopa Organic Coffee & Tea House, Mugs on Main), two in Patchogue (Coho Coffee House, Southdown Coffee), and one in Mattituck (Love Lane Kitchen).
Shaye’s library has been embraced by businesses, which view the initiative as a win-win that provides a benefit to customers while also encouraging customers to return to the store: “We are excited to host a Free Ukraine Library in our shop and wholeheartedly support Shaye’s important mission to educate Americans about the country of Ukraine,” said Elisa Ferrebee, manager of Love Lane Kitchen in Mattituck.
“We are so grateful there are people on Long Island helping to educate on this vital topic. Free and accessible information is a resource we cannot live without,” said Chris Larson, manager of Southdown Coffee in Patchogue.
“We’re so happy to be a part of aiding in people learning more about what’s going on in Ukraine,” said the barista at Coho Coffee House in Patchogue.
This initiative has a special meaning for Shaye, as both of his parents were born in the Russian-speaking areas of Soviet Ukraine and immigrated as young children to this country in the late 1970s as Jewish refugees. His parents grew up speaking Russian and knew little of Ukrainian culture as kids. Likewise, most Americans thought of Ukraine as “one of the republics” and not as an independent country with a distinct history and culture. And today, Ukraine is mostly seen as a war zone. Shaye wants to change that.
“I wanted to learn more about this part of my heritage and the country where my parents were born, so I set out to do this through reading. What I found was fascinating, so I wanted to share this knowledge with others in settings like coffee shops and other businesses that foster community,” he said. “I especially want to focus on small towns that have strong communities, so the books can circulate widely.”
Shaye’s goal is to continue to expand the awareness of Ukrainian culture by establishing more “branches” of his libraries in the tri-state area and share this knowledge through the joy of reading.