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Can You Rob a Little Free Library?

Margret Aldrich

Staff Writer

Margret Aldrich is a writer and recovering book editor who has worked with authors from American Indian activist Winona LaDuke to punk-rock guitar legend Cheetah Chrome. (They were equally intense and equally fantastic.) She is also a former editor, blogger, and librarian at Utne Reader, a magazine celebrating the best of the alternative press. Based in Minneapolis, Margret is a devoted Little Free Library owner who wonders what to do when a Sarah Palin biography shows up in one's LFL. Her book about Little Free Libraries—and how they spark community, literacy, and creativity around the world—came out from Coffee House Press in April. Twitter: mmaldrich

Little Free Libraries are pure literary generosity.

These charming book exchanges, which stand in front yards across the country (and around the world), are typically self-sustaining. Neighbors take a book when they see something they like, and donate a book when they have one to share.

Through this cyclical system, Little Free Libraries are kept full, with inventory that constantly changes.

But, recently, there have been reports of ne’er-do-wells who don’t get the honor-system concept. Instead of choosing one book, or dropping off a title or two, these killjoys take all the books — every last one — leaving nothing but empty shelves for the next patron to find.

Little Free Libraries in Lincoln, Nebraska, were targeted by a book bandit last month, reports the Journal Star. He or she (or they) cleared out large amounts of adult books, young adult books, and kids’ books from six local LFLs.

Our own Swapna Krishna has had her Little Free Library in Washington D.C. cleared out, too. (Read her story “My Little Free Library Has Been VIOLATED” here.)

Why does this happen? Josh Cohen, writing about Little Free Library robbers for Melville House, had this insight“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.”

Chances are, book thieves are hoping to make an easy buck by reselling titles at a used bookstore. (The last time I checked, though, fifty-eight tons of well-used books = about three dollars. It’s not the greatest money-making scheme.) Or maybe they are new users who don’t understand how Little Free Libraries work.

Whatever the case, these violations are the exception. The vast majority of Little Free Libraries are bursting at the seams with largehearted book donations from patrons. My own Little Free Library in Minneapolis, for example, sometimes gets so full that I have to pull out books to give the shelf some breathing room.

But the question remains: Can you steal a free book?

Megan Haase Ockander — one of the Lincoln stewards whose Library was pilfered — notes that even if you can’t exactly steal a book from a Little Free Library, you can steal the Little Free Library experience away from the next patron.

On the other hand, Robin Ross — a steward in Carpentersville, Illinois — also recognizes that taking books is what it’s all about. “In the end, we know that many children in our community do not have access to books at home, and we are happy if they love them enough to keep them,” she says.

As for the Little Free Library nonprofit organization, they’ve seen firsthand that a few negative blips don’t tarnish the overwhelmingly positive LFL movement.

“Part of the shared economy, which relies on the honor system, is dealing with those without honor. Thankfully in the case of LFL, one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch, because our giving stewards persevere,” says Kris Huson, director of marketing and communications at Little Free Library.

Little Free Library creator and executive director Todd Bol agrees: “I’ve actually observed that doing harm to a Little Free Library infuriates the community — much like robbing a little girl’s lemonade stand. This often creates a greater, more broad-based community action plan around Little Free Libraries. We’ve seen this ‘lemonade out of lemons’ reaction all the time.”

That was certainly the case in Lincoln, Nebraska. After six of the city’s fifty Little Free Libraries were “robbed,” the community stepped up to refill them. Even the University of Nebraska Press donated books to the cause.

How to keep your Little Free Library full (and happy)

You don’t need to install a security system to keep your Little Free Library stocked. Instead, follow this advice from The Little Free Library Book and my fellow LFL stewards:

1. Educate your patrons. Include bookmarks or small flyers in your Little Free Library that explain the “take a book, return a book” concept. If people don’t know how an LFL works, they might take more books than they should.

2. Stamp your books. Buy a stamp from Little Free Library that reads “Always a Gift, Never for Sale” or print a label that says, “Not for resale. This is a free book,” then mark the books in your Little Free Library. You can also simply write “Not for sale” on the top of each book.

3. Enlist your neighbors. Ask the people on your block to help keep an eye on the Little Free Library. Since the micro-libraries essentially belong to the community, neighbors are often happy to help.

4. Give used bookstores a heads-up. People who take stacks of books from Little Free Libraries may be looking to sell them. “Educating your used bookstores to the Little Free Library concept is one way to help stop this,” says Michele Gray, a Little Free Library steward in Detroit.

5. Don’t keep quiet. “If your LFL is being victimized, tell the community,” says Lincoln steward Bob DiPaolo. By writing a letter to the editor and posting signs on their Little Free Libraries, stewards in Lincoln got the city to rally around them.

6. Take the high road. “Write notes to your ‘thieves.’ Invite them for tea. Have children write notes. Ask your other book givers and takers to join you in thoughtfully solving the problem,” says Little Free Library cofounder Rick Brooks. “Equanimity has its place alongside generosity, kindness, and other virtues. Don’t let your attachment to any book overshadow the pleasure of knowing that someone is reading it.”