When it comes to getting people interested in reading, the Little Free Library is a great idea, as we’ve reported here a number of times before. But sometimes even Little Free Libraries can run into a tragedy of the commons. BookRiot and Melville House report that some people in different places have come out to find their Little Free Libraries entirely cleaned out—every single book taken by some unseen thief.

Of course, you can wax philosophical about the issue. If a book is free, can it truly be “stolen”? In a sense, no—if the person taking it actually means to read it. But someone who comes along and cleans out twenty or thirty titles probably doesn’t mean to read them all. They probably mean to get their jollies by making sure nobody else can get any books. It’s like what happened to that hitchhiking robot in Philadelphia a couple of days ago—some people like to destroy things rather than build them up.

(Of course, there are people out there who are so book-hungry they’ll take anything they can get, but the odds are pretty good that they’re in the minority compared to the jerks.)

But on the other hand, this kind of malfeasance can usually be relied on to stir up the community. After all, the vast majority of people are good. If they see a little free library as a community resource, and someone vandalizes it, they’ll step up to help out.

BookRiot has some good tips for helping keep Little Free Libraries safe. They include putting fliers inside to explain to people what they’re about, stamping each book with a “this book is free!” notice to try to prevent people from selling them to used bookstores, and letting the community know if you’re being ripped off.

And I would add, don’t give up—you’re doing something good in the world, making books available to people for free. Don’t let the jerks get you down.


  1. My wife and I set up a Little Free Library last summer here in Toronto. We’ve since then had some wonderful conversations with very appreciative neighbours, who wanted to talk about favourite books and why they love reading. One Sunday in the winter after a snowfall we woke to find all of our books spread out on our front porch to dry, along with a note from an anonymous Samaritan who wanted us to know that s/he had found the books emptied out onto the snow by “some jerk.” The Samaritan thanked us for the library, and told us not be discouraged by the jerk. Said jerk has not re-offended, and the books in the meantime keep going out and coming back, as do the great conversations. We had a garage sale a couple of weeks ago, and more people wanted to stop and thank us for the library than wanted to buy our old junk. (We still sold the junk, however…)
    In the end, that one stupid vandal led us to think very well of the anonymous neighbour who took some trouble to set things aright, and so on balance we came out of the experience happier about the state of the world than we entered into it. Sucks to be you, vandal.

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