Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

How to Protect Little Free Libraries

It’s not easy running a library. Sure, people on the outside think it’s easy. They think librarians sit around all day reading novels and drinking tea.

But they don’t realize that librarians have all sorts of problems to deal with, including theft. Sometimes the theft is high profile, like some missing rare book worth thousands of dollars. Sometimes it’s low profile, like that copy of The Anarchist Handbook that keeps going missing.

Some people think it’s so easy running a library, they start one right in their front yard and call it a “little free library.” Then they get upset when people start taking the “free” part seriously.

That link is to a story from Milwaukee by a woman asking “is it stealing if you empty a Little Free Library?” If you want to see what some nefarious little free library thieves look like, click through and check out the picture.

Her “Little Free Library has been completely cleaned out three times” in just a month, so restocking it is, like remarriage after divorce, the triumph of hope over experience.

The ethical question is interesting. Can you steal something that’s being given away for free? Not really.

What we have here isn’t so much stealing as what economists call the “tragedy of the commons.” The idea is that when property is held in common, some individuals are more likely to exploit or harm it than they would if they owned it themselves.

Walk down any city street and look at the accumulating garbage from litterbugs and you’ll get the idea. Watch any large factory polluting the surrounding air and water and you’ll get it again.

You might think that public libraries would count as “the commons,” since everyone is welcome to use them. However, public libraries have rules and people to enforce them.

Everyone might be able to use the library, but everybody doesn’t own the books in the library. The library owns the books, and the library is a social agency staffed by people responsible for making sure those books don’t just wander off whenever someone with a garbage bag feels the need to grab some paperbacks.

But little free libraries aren’t public libraries. They’re a nice gesture, but by putting books out for free they’re inviting unscrupulous people to game the system and take the books.

The little free librarian wonders at the motive. “Is our Little Free Library being emptied in order for the books to be sold? If people really need the money, it’s almost justifiable, but I have sold enough used books in my life to know that the mostly-paperback ones I am putting in my library are worth very little to nothing at a book shop.”

It’s unlikely the motive is money. People don’t throw garbage into the streets because of money. Back when there were payphones everywhere, people didn’t rip the pages out of the phone books because there was money to be made. People don’t cut others off in traffic for profit.

They don’t leave their dog’s feces on the sidewalk because there’s money to be made. They leave it on the sidewalk because they’re about as socialized as the dog is. The same goes for litterbugs and rude drivers.

There’s always going to be a minority of people who go out of their way to ruin things for everyone else. Getting three dollars for selling a garbage bag full of old paperbacks is just icing on their perverted cake. It’s a fact of life, and one that public libraries prepare for.

The little free librarian wonders if there’s a good solution, although I like her idea of writing “From A Little Free Library, No Resale.” on the front cover in indelible ink. That’s a good start, and it’s pretty much what real libraries do. Call number stickers, barcodes, ownership stamps, and Tattle-Tape are all ways to mark a book as owned.

Were I to run a little free library, I’d also install a security camera of some kind, preferably a motion activated one to get a nice shot of whoever’s stealing the books.

The next step would probably be some sort of guardian of the books to make sure that people take just one book and that they leave a book in return.

Since I can’t expect people to just sit around all day for nothing, that person will probably have to be paid. How to do that? Well, traditionally people in the community get together and vote to tax themselves to pay for someone to protect the books they hold in common.

I also can’t expect the guardian of the books to sit outside all day in every sort of weather, so some sort of building is needed. To save on costs, maybe just a shed or something at first. Put a couple of chairs in the shed and people might want to stay to chat while they look through the books.

As time goes by, I could add a table, a computer, maybe additional shelves for swapping CDs and DVDs.

Pretty soon I’d have a bustling, busy place with people coming in all the time to read, chat, maybe drink some coffee if someone has the foresight to set up a pot.

It might all cost a little more, but everyone will be so happy the little free library exists the majority of them will vote to supply a little more money in taxes. Maybe it could be linked to property taxes, so people pay according to the cost of their property.

I know. It’s a crazy dream. Too bad something like that doesn’t already exist in the neighborhoods with little free libraries.

At least it would be one way to make sure people weren’t just stealing all the books.


Please note that new comments for all posts on this blog have been closed.


  1. Miss Librarian says:

    This post is awesome!

  2. Been Doing This a While says:

    “They leave it on the sidewalk because they’re about as socialized as the dog is.” No truer words. There’s always a group of people who do what they can to game the system for their advantage. I almost feel like it’s not worth offering patrons new programs of any kind, because there will be a small group of people who will ruin it for everyone else. People can’t be shamed or embarrassed because they have no shame. The idea of civic responsibility no longer exists. It’s Every Person for HIM/HERSELF.

  3. anonymous coward says:

    I think you’re off the point. People are basically good. People don’t pick up dog poop because they’re lazy and it’s nasty. People little because they’re lazy and don’t think about it. There is no malicious intent.

    I’m rather certain that this IS a case of a homeless person making a few bucks. I mean, if they’ll dig through trash to pull out cans for a few bucks they will MOST certainly grab books out of a nice, clean receptacle to the same end.

    Also, as to the tragedy of the commons and library, see:

  4. “The ethical question is interesting. Can you steal something that’s being given away for free?”
    Yes, really.
    The books aren’t being given away, they are being loaned. The usage of the books is free, it doesn’t imply a transfer of ownership. By your logic everyone who uses google owns it and would be entitled to a share of their profits. Similarly if a store sets out samples with a sign that says take 1 it could be considered theft if I took all of them. The terms of the implied agreement were for 1 free sample.

  5. QuickE Grad Student says:

    This is a similar case to a trip to Boston. I was shocked that books were set up on a table and some in boxes,some free, some with a price, with a small box for dropping the amount, in close proximity to the Gutman Library (Harvard’s Graduate School of Education). I pondered would people be honest or would there be some free for all. This also refers to those areas in the library where you can lend one/borrow one (usually at the front entrance or by the circulation desk). This is a great concept but it goes back to the comment made about there is always someone taking advantage of the system.

  6. “It’s not easy running a library. Sure, people on the outside think it’s easy. They think librarians sit around all day reading novels and drinking tea.”

    Yes; I didn’t think this type of behavior was allowed, especially with taxpayers footing the bill, paying librarians salaries. As a longtime bookworm who grew up borrowing books from several libraries in different states, I thought that running a library involved work. Even if the library closes in an hour, and there aren’t too many patrons left to help in the building, I thought there’s always work that needs to be done.

    However, the librarians who my current local library hires apparently don’t seem to do this. For years, I’ve witnessed the staff at the front desk- including the managers- gossip to each other about their personal lives, play Solitaire on the computer, and surf the internet for fun showing their co-workers something on the screen with the latter exclaiming, “Oooh, I want to buy that!” With large computer screens, it’s easy to notice what they’re doing from a long distance away.

    It seems tacky and inconsiderate to me that all of this is done by privileged college-educated, middle-aged adults in front of unemployed people, mainly minorities, working quietly at the library’s computers.

    Some of us unemployed people, whether being a minority or in their 20s and 30s, and not having a lot of work experience or a college degree (a debt of $52,000 for an undergraduate, four-year degree at an in-state university is too expensive for me, a would be first-generation student), would appreciate and be grateful to have a paying job.

    How unfortunate that non-degreed people who want to help work at the library, as opposed to treating it like just another paycheck, and wouldn’t have stood around, gossiping, complaining or doing nothing are ignored for librarian positions, despite having work or life experience working with the public or voluntarily teaching children how to figure skate. My previous supervisor at my grocery store job gave me so much work (mainly running the entire department myself because she worked the daytime shift while I worked in the evenings), that I didn’t have time to stand around doing nothing.

  7. Ah, I now see that I forgot an apostrophe and can’t edit what I wrote. I should’ve written, “librarians’ salaries”.

  8. Paula. Blackshear says:

    Just let go of the books! They are supposed to be free. If someone wants them all so what ? My library is filled by strangers more often than I fill it, It’s a community thing, we can’t control everything … If you need a surveillance camera maybe you don’t want to have a little free library.

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