July 22, 2015

Little Free Libraries robbed, philosophical questions raised


A (unburgled) Little Free Library in Lincoln, NE. (via Facebook)

A (unburgled) Little Free Library in Lincoln, NE. (via Facebook)

How can one steal what cannot be stolen? As we do in all matters of the seemingly profound and pseudo-intellectual, we look to Nebraska, where several Lincoln-area Little Free Libraries have been robbed in the past week.

In theory, the Little Free Library is a benevolent force of literacy and community that brings people together. It’s a free give-a-book, take-a-book operation run out of charming wooden boxes. What could be the downside to that?

Keep in mind that the users of Little Free Libraries are humans, who have a prolific track record of not being able to have nice things. That’s why anti-communal-whimsy curmudgeons have banished these darling librariettes into backyards and out of cities altogether.

Lincoln isn’t having that problem. Per the Lincoln Journal Star, the city is home to 50 Little Free Libraries. Support for these boxes of words and whimsy is strong. Yet recently, multiple Little Free Librarians have discovered significant portions of their inventories suddenly missing, books a-taken without books a-given to replace them.

Now, as you might imagine with any good-faith-based operation like this, not everyone brings along a book to leave when they partake in a Little Free Library’s offerings. Sometimes shelves are not stocked sufficiently to counterbalance human selfishness.

Twenty books disappearing at once is a different story, and one for which the Little Free Library concept offers basically no recourse. In fact, the organization’s FAQs addresses the idea of Little Free Thievery in terms pragmatic, philosophical, and common sensical.

In response to the question, “Won’t people steal the books?”:

No. You can’t steal a free book. And if you have a good steward and lots of active users, eventually someone who tries to “steal” books will realize that it’s not a good thing to do. An official Little Free Library stamp in the books will also help prevent used bookstores from buying them. If someone is repeatedly clearing out your Library, put up a sign explaining that your Little Library is a community resource for everyone to enjoy and that you and others notice when the Library is mistreated. You could even consider moving the Library to a more public location, like a coffee shop or a school, if you continue to have trouble.

So the organization’s official stamp is more or less to shame those who violate the Little Free Library ethos into respecting the institution. But it also raises the key point that, since Little Free Library books are free, logic proceeds that they cannot be stolen, even when taken in bulk.

Megan Ockander, one of the burgled Lincoln Librarians, disagrees with that premise, telling the Journal Star, “It was obvious people had taken more than they could reasonably read.”

This concept is uncomfortable on multiple levels. Of course, there’s the base disgust at whatever jerk or jerks took all these books from a community that values them. But upon hearing that rationale, a latent uncertainty that rises to the surface for all book lovers: how many books is too many books?

Every devoted reader owns at least one book he or she is excited to crack open, but after an extended period of time, still hasn’t. For me, it’s Five Came Back by Mark Harris, which I bought for my dad as a Father’s Day present knowing I could read it after him (love you, Daddo!). That book’s only been out a year and a half, so that’s not so bad, right? Except I bought four new books in the past week, because The Strand is still open on a Friday night when I wander by with multiple drinks in me. Remember: Strand before bar, money goes far; bar before Strand, no cash in hand.

Someday I’ll read Five Came Back, I hope. But I consistently have more books than I can reasonably read at the time I have them, and I don’t believe I’m alone in that. Are we no better than the at-large Lincoln Free Book Bandits? Do they deserve to be vilified for the crime of loving books too much?

Or, on the other hand, ordinary literary overconsumption is a lens through which we can see just how prickish their actions are. You’re not about to read all 20 of those books, Lincoln Free Book Bandits. Stop harming a benevolent literary community, and stop making the rest of us trying to get through a single-digit reading list look bad.


Josh Cohen is a contributing editor for MobyLives.