SOUTH PORTLAND – About 2,000 years ago, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the library of Alexandria in Egypt, burned to the ground.

Its demise was arguably the greatest tragedy in mankind’s history of understanding. Modeled after Aristotle’s Lyceum, the library was a place to collect and make available for study all the knowledge in world.

Recently, Julie Falatko of South Portland decided to bring a slice of old Egypt to her neighborhood.

As told in her blog, “World of Julie,” Falatko, a librarian armed with an master’s in library science but no job in this tight economy, translated her love of literacy and books into a family project aimed at building community.

What resulted was Little Free Library No. 2354, a quaint structure for free book lending.

Falatko was inspired by the eponymous national organization found at the website www.littlefreelibrary.org.

Her husband Dave and all four of their children had a hand in the project, from design and building to inventory selection and emotional support. The finished product can be seen — and more importantly used — at 38 Reynolds St.

With the recent flap between Gov. LePage and statewide educators over the quality of Maine’s students still echoing, Little Free Library is exactly the type of non-partisan grass-roots civic engagement we need statewide.

As difficult as it is to finance schools, libraries face greater challenges. Since much of their enrichment equity remains discretionary, so does their funding.

Even strongly supported municipal libraries struggle with budgets and must rely on volunteerism and fundraising from auxiliaries. All of this affects literacy.

Citizens such as Falatko and three others near Portland who have built Little Free Libraries — in Falmouth, Saco and Cape Elizabeth — stepped forward to answer the governing body’s threefold mission.

According to its website, the first charge of Little Free Library is to promote literacy and love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide.

When holding a book, whether scholarly or frivolous, the ability to read and access information is the foundation on which all education is built.

The next goal is to create a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.

Such legacies are vital to the place we call home, and the people around us.

Just as my father took me to baseball games and I took my son, so also must a rite of passage be affixed to the love of learning.

When that flow of erudition hits the flood stage, we’ll have come a long way to building up our riverbanks of knowledge.

Finally, Little Free Library wants to construct more than 2,510 libraries around the world — more than Andrew Carnegie, as they put it — and then some. Judging by Falatko’s No. 2354, they seem well on pace.

Which brings us back to that corner of Reynolds Street.

In scanning the 15 or so titles laid out by the Falatko family, they range from classics such as “Animal Farm” and “1984” to exposes like “Fast Food Nation,” and some nice children’s offerings.

The books are professionally labeled, and there’s also an interior light so night owls among us won’t miss it. And the due date for returning a borrowed book? “Whenever.”

In sensing the passion of Falatko and other Mainers, we must consider libraries at a crossroads between the heritage of the 19th century and the demands of the 21st.

In the past, religion and churches played a more central role in our society in terms of civic discourse and engagement. Today, forms of acquiring and distributing knowledge are taking over some of those roles.

This isn’t to suggest libraries have potential to become the new churches. Religion remains a bulwark for many Mainers, and our interfaith leaders conduct excellent community service. But this is a new time, and libraries have an opportunity to sustain traditional roles while developing fresh visions of service — in short, to become cerebral sanctuaries.

In this light, Little Free Library brings to mind the poet e.e. cummings (who spurned all capital letters).

He once wrote: “i am a little church (no great cathedral)/ far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities/ i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest/ i am not sorry when sun and rain make april.”

The Little Free Library on Reynolds Street may not be Alexandria, but it is this city’s little church of the mind. Already, in its first week, it has seen a 75 percent turnover of inventory.

And for those of you out there who need a librarian, somebody please give Julie Falatko the keys to a cathedral.

Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist from Portland’s West End. Email him at: [email protected]