If you can’t steal a free book, then what do you call it? – Part II: A tragedy of the commons

With a perch on the soft-edges of public spaces, neighborhood book exchanges invite the public to participate in an open and free exchange of books. But that invitation positions the book exchange for all the highs and lows of public participation. In this post, we continue our discussion of book exchanges and book theft.        

Photo via Jamison Wieser

Photo via Jamison Wieser

Should stewards worry about book thieves pilfering their book exchange?  The Little Free Library® organization must get this question often because it is filed under their organizational knowledge base as an FAQ.  Astoundingly, an organization that claims to be the resource for stewards of book exchanges proclaims that, “You can’t steal a free book” —an answer deserving of a proverbial kick in the nuts.  At best, this answer is evasive, like sweeping the dirt under the rug.  At worst, it represents complete denial—what dirt?  Either way, it doesn’t make stewards feel any better—especially when, in reality, it is a problem with which they are trying to cope.

Our study of neighborhood book exchanges focused on why people build them, what items were circulating through them, and the information practices that emerged from their use.  Admittedly, troubleshooting solutions for vandals and book theft were not angles we actively pursued, though these issues surfaced occasionally.

Building, installing, and stewarding a book exchange for the stewards in our study was largely an act of generosity to anyone within eye-shot.  Unfortunately, generous acts will always be susceptible to people eager to take advantage of that generosity.  It’s sad, but the reasons for someone to take advantage of a book exchange can be many.

Justifications for taking the best books from a book exchange and hawking them on the street are easy to come by.  For example, the alleged thefts by the street vendor in our study area maintains a marginal existence by selling used books. He sells these books on the city sidewalk in a neighborhood whose residents enjoy comparative wealth—property values are around half a million dollars—and the leisure to trade good books in a cute semi-public structure.  Stealing books from an exchange is easy and doesn’t carry with it the same consequences of, say stealing books from a bookstore. So it should be no big surprise when an opportunistic street vendor robs it blind of the top shelf reads to make sales.  This, of course, doesn’t make it acceptable, but at least if we’re honest, we can understand how someone can do it with a clean conscience.

Book exchanges thrive in the soft edges7 of public-private space.  And for the very same reasons that it allows unabashed access it becomes as vulnerable as any object in the public sphere.  Book exchanges in these spaces (whether or not it is technically public) are as susceptible as any telephone pole, traffic box, bathroom, or dumpster entrusted to the public.  That susceptibility sometimes manifests itself is strange and disgusting ways—dumpsters becoming bathrooms and bathrooms becoming dumpsters.  The public treatment of public inheritance bends to general misuse over time.  Of the six exchanges in our study, all but one were tagged with a sharpie or paint pen, some more damaging than others and at least one was being pilfered by a street vendor.

It is a sad fact of life that we treat things in the public commons (and each other) with such little respect sometimes.  A comedian aptly riffed, ‘the problem with public transportation is the public.’  If you don’t find that even a little humorous, you haven’t ridden a public bus lately.  I think we should have the expectation that if not probable, then misuse of book exchanges that exist on these soft edges of public space is very possible.

Neighborhood book exchange Steward seeking neighborhood stewardship to help fend off book theft [Photo cred: Tammy Ljungblad]

Neighborhood book exchange Steward seeking neighborhood stewardship to help fend off book theft [Photo cred: Tammy Ljungblad]

Keeping this problem in perspective seems like an important part of coping with this issue.  It’s hurtful to see someone benefiting monetarily from a book exchange that everyone is free to use, but that misuse doesn’t diminish all the positive aspects of the exchange.  During one of our interviews the stewards were split on how to think about the book thefts.  One shrugged it off and figured the guy probably needed the books more than anyone else.  The others were clearly more perturbed, but were unsure how to approach the problem.

Should a steward call the police or plant a camera nearby to catch the thief, as other stewards I’ve read about have done?  That seems a little overkill to me, not to mention, invasive.  I think the stewards in our study recognize that their neighborly relationships won’t crumble if the perp. strikes again.  Nor will their neighborhood fall into disrepair.  With that perspective, they are less likely to blow this problem out of proportion.

When we look at the data we collected on this particular exchange—the high frequency of times books were taken and dropped off and the maintenance it received—you wouldn’t flag it to be the one that gets hit by a book thief.  From our perspective, it was well loved by the stewards and, perhaps more importantly, their neighbors, who represent strong advocates and allies.  In fact, in our second interview, the stewards mentioned that their neighbors directly confronted the alleged book thief, apparently, to no avail.  The exchange experienced a high weekly turnover rate and was meticulously maintained.  Loose hinges were fixed, the chalk receptacle was regularly refilled, and the contents were regularly curated.  It was painted artistically, included a small mural on the back of the structure and was repainted and cleaned periodically.  It’s located conspicuously in a well-lit area within a boulevard garden.  It is within sight of neighbors who have pledged to keep a watchful eye over it as well.

The stewards of this exchange have broad support, maintain the exchange daily, and their neighbors have directly confronted the perp., who now, if not then, knows that what he is doing is hurtful.  Of the advice with which I’m aware circulating on the web regarding how to be a good steward, these stewards appear to be doing a stand-up job—and they do it within the boundaries of common sense and good taste.  Other exchange stewards in our study did a lot less and weren’t plagued with this problem—that we know of.  What gives?

A steward stamps the book exchanges' books with a "Always a gift, never for sale" stamp from the Little Free Library© [Photo cred: Tammy Ljungblad]

A steward stamps the book exchanges’ books with a “Always a gift, never for sale” stamp from the Little Free Library© [Photo cred: Tammy Ljungblad]

The Little Free Library® organization offer stamps that say “Always A Gift, Never For Sale” for purchase ($12.95) which is a little strange considering they’re offering a solution to a problem they say doesn’t exist.  In any case, I have to wonder whether a book thief—mind you, one that’s been confronted—will be deterred by a passive stamp.  How hard could it be to cover up a stamp or destroy the area around it until its message is indecipherable?  Small damages are part and parcel to used book vendors and buyers and won’t necessarily prevent a sale of a book that’s already marked down tremendously.  And a stamp of this nature may be more effective within the legitimate second hand book market loop, whose brokers can be on the look-out for swiped books. But I remain skeptical of the effectiveness on the black market.


I am not a pessimistic person by nature, so while I try, and mostly succeed, in seeing the good in people, I’ve witnessed generosity pilfered enough times to acknowledge the darker tendency that pulls people in dubious directions.  I have to acknowledge, too, that not every time someone is taken advantage of is a result of malicious intent.  In Santa Fe, someone actually stole more than the books in a Little Free Library; they took the entire structure.  Was this a brazen act of theft or a genuine misunderstanding?  It’s entirely possible that whoever took the exchange misinterpreted the sign and thought that the whole exchange was free for the taking.  It was positioned next to the road, untethered, and it said ‘free’ on it.

Misunderstandings notwithstanding, taking books from a book exchange and hawking them on the street *read stealing books from a book exchange* is a problem some stewards are facing.  It’s a problem for which there isn’t necessarily a very elegant or obvious solution.  But opening up an honest discussion about this issue would go a long way.  And perhaps the Little Free Library® organization could have a role in moving the discussion forward by at least changing tack on the claim that ‘you can’t steal a book from a book exchange.’

Neighborhood book exchanges fascinate me, but the culture and practices that form around them are even more interesting to me than what I might find inside them.  I think that may be the point, of all this, too.  As much as I love a serendipitous find in a book exchange, the interactions and encounters among its visitors has more cache with me.  But regardless of what attracts us to them they are ultimately human endeavors and humans can act ugly sometimes.  Stealing books from a free book exchange is that kind of ugliness.

There may not be an elegant way to prevent thieves from taking advantage of book exchanges yet, but I think there’s real promise.  If denying the problem or installing cameras are proposed, we’ve already folded our hand.  A real solution begins with a spirited discussion—an open and honest discussion of book exchange stewards’ experiences coping with book thefts.  And perhaps *nod* more research is needed.


7.  Gehl, J. (1986). “Soft Edges” in residential streets. Scandinavian Housing and Planning Research.          3, 89-102.


3 thoughts on “If you can’t steal a free book, then what do you call it? – Part II: A tragedy of the commons

  1. Pingback: If you can’t steal a free book, then what do you call it? – Part I | The Neighborhood Book Exchange Study

  2. As the steward of a Little Free Library, I’ll admit to some pretty “Grinchy” thoughts when the best children’s hardcover books disappear and don’t always return.

    Our library, however, explicitly tells patrons they do not need to return the book, just “take a book, leave a book.” (Every volume in the library receives a proprietary bookplate, include a few with handwritten notes requesting that particular book’s return. I haven’t noticed it making much difference in which books show back up.) So patrons have every right to keep the books they take, as long as they contribute books in return (hopefully in proportion to what they take).

    We are fortunate that the library has not been vandalized nor cleaned out, and that it has generous donors who leave books on a regular basis. For the moment, it’s easy to say “the books may come back, but if not, we put them out there as a gift to the community and, once given, we have no claim to them.”

    The comments about how everyone loves the Providence Little Free Library, the frequency at which pedestrians pause to investigate it’s contents, and the pleasure neighbors and friends derive from contributing books make it a gift to us all, myself included.


    • Hi Victoria,

      Thanks for sharing. It’s great to hear that your Little Free Library is so well loved.

      It’s interesting to hear that you add notes requesting each book’s return to your LFL, but you doubt the notes effect on the rate of returns. Is it possible that people do not see the notes? I wonder if it’s similar to our query regarding the “Always a gift, never for sale” stamps for books sold on the street. If people aren’t expecting to find a note or a stamp that explains what is or isn’t appropriate, they may not look for it or understand it if they see it.

      In our research effort, I’ve found it fascinating to consider the many different interpretations of how the book exchanges are intended to be used. The names, tag lines, and instructions can vary considerably from one book exchange to another, and are often very vague or ambiguous. Even “take a book, leave a book” prompts a number of questions. Do I have to leave a book before I take a book? Can I take a book now and return a different one later? Do I have to return the same book?

      In addition, every visitor brings their own perspective on how the exchanges work. They may have previous experience with other book exchanges that shapes their expectations on how to participate. Or they may have no previous experience with book exchanges and be unsure how to approach it. Consider, for instance, the difference in expectations for visitors in these two scenarios. Some stewards take full responsibility for stocking the exchange; visitors are not expected to contribute. In other cases, stewards do not stock the exchange at all; visitors are expected to make contributions or the exchange will be empty.

      These factors can really complicate the shared understanding of how to use a particular book exchange. And, as a result, visitors may not adhere to the rules promoted by the steward.


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