Stealing From Libraries


Have you ever stolen a book from a library? Is there any circumstance where this is acceptable?

We’ll get to that in a moment. First, some background. Libraries figured hugely in my childhood and teenage years, but I don’t suppose they feel as necessary in young lives now, certainly not in time-poor London. Taking two examples, the last time I went to Islington Library it felt musty and unwelcoming. Deptford Library was the exact opposite, welcoming and surprisingly fresh, so it may depend on where you live. But the library I spent most time in was not my local one – it was my school library, which was very well-stocked, partly because so many of the ex-pupils were funding it with books.

When the summer holidays began they closed the library and I was bereft, partly because I was teaching myself Russian and they had good language resources. So I stole one of the books. It was meant to be an extended borrow over the summer holidays, but I managed to lose it and have felt bad ever since. One of my best friends went to jail for stealing books to order. An obsessive bibliophile, he only swiped books that had not been taken out for at least five years and sold them to people who were desperate to find a copy. While I certainly don’t approve, it’s as close to a victimless crime you can get.

I’m shocked by just how many of the books I order online, either through Amazon or Abebooks, that have been lifted from libraries. It may be that they have been taken from redundant stock; highly likely, considering the esoteric nature of my purchases! I’m surprised that there’s no organised system for donating books in London. I guess it would be difficult to set up and co-ordinate. As someone who is sent a lots of books each month – don’t be jealous; many of them are very bad indeed – I’m at a loss as to what to do with them. Casting aside the ones I wouldn’t inflict on anyone, I still can’t give ‘quality’ books to my local shop because they prioritise hipster novels (to be fair they’re beside an art college). My local library works from an approved list. I distribute the best to friends, but it leaves many copies over.

And I need other books. I’ve recently been searching for a novel by a possible uncle of mine (long story, see articles passim) and found one copy in a Canadian library which I would gladly nick. (Actually someone on this site offered me his copy, but I lost his details). So while there are ludicrous surpluses of, say, Jeffrey Archer books, the more exciting novels that occupy liminal spaces in literature run can’t be found because they were produced in finite print runs.

Would I now steal a book no-one else was interested in? No, because someone might be some day. Would I sanction it in a curious child? Possibly.

The library at the top features the astonishing stacks of Trinity College library in Dublin. 


21 comments on “Stealing From Libraries”

  1. cherry says:

    Hipster novels?

  2. snowy says:

    Er… No and since ‘any circumstance’ covers a vast number of cases, then possibly.

    Other places that might welcome books in no particlar order:

    Local Prison, [anything absorbent or suitable for rolling]
    Local Hospital, [possibly not Moorfields]
    Local Hospice, [probably only the slimmer volumes]

    I’m sure others will have additional suggestions.

  3. Crprod says:

    Our public library in Durham, NC accepts donations of books that are then resold at one or two dollars for paperbacks and three for hardbound. This supports the work of the friends of the library society. Occasionally there are good ones in the “classics” section which is mainly famous authors of the past few centuries. Sometimes there are good books in history, but there are more that are looking at the past through the wrong end of the telescope.

  4. Brooke says:

    “… close to a victimless crime you can get.” Attempting to find your forgotten authors in our public library, I discovered many listed in the fiction catalogue had disappeared from the stacks–stolen. The librarians say they would love to acquire replacements for those still in print but with budget cutbacks…etc.

    Homes for orphan books… may apply only in Philly: public library annex (takes anything, sells everything for 1USD or less); used book stores (four really old stores, knowledgeable, take anything, give store credit for donations–dangerous that); thrift stores (re-sell through Amazon) and apartment-building swap (I leave orphan books in our common area–gone within an hour). All have recycling options–orphan books become shopping bags.

    Thanks for the Trinity College image– that is a gorgeous place.

  5. Adam says:

    Confession time…I must have been 13 or 14 when I stumbled across a most illuminating book of erotic photography in our local library. Far too embarrassed to try and book it out, I stuck it in my school bag and legged it. I was wracked with guilt in all senses (as I was a pupil at a rather strict catholic school). My feeling of divine retribution was magnified when I got home when I realised that I’d left my games kit, new trainers and all, on the bus. My parents went ballistic (we didn’t have much money and it was an expense they could well do without). I returned the book the very next day. My subsequent religious conversation lasted all of a week, and my games kit never did turn up..

  6. Brooke says:

    @Adam…poor you.

    Admin… thanks for posting Carl Reiner’s video.

  7. Peter Tromans says:

    For those of us who believe that almost all books should be preserved, then it’s fine to take the book if it is to save it from destruction. It’s a matter of ownership versus custodianship and the responsibility of the custodian. At the height of the financial crisis, a friend of mine questioned whether, in an ethical rather than legal sense, it was possible to steal money from a bank.

  8. Jo W says:

    Steal a library book? NO! Libraries were and are there for books to be borrowed,read and returned and in good condition. My mum told me,when I joined the library,that I was borrowing someone else’s property,it wasn’t mine to keep,lose or scribble on.How would I like it if I lent a book and it was returned marked,or worse still not given back.
    I have remembered her words a few times in my life when I have lent books to ‘friends’ never to see them again.( Two of those were school prizes. Grrr) ok rant over, feel better for that.
    I have bought s/h books which were obviously ex library but I’ve also bought books from the local library as they seem to have a clear out every now and then. I assume most libraries do this.Sometimes I find one that I’ve missed.
    Great photo of the Trinity College Library. I visited last year and loved it. Only thing that spoilt it for me was the noise from the crowds of other tourists. I just wanted to to say SSSSHHHHHHHH!!

  9. Peter Tromans says:

    The Bodleian Library declaration:

    “I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document, or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.”

    Also available in Latin.

  10. John says:

    The books that you are buying that are ex-library books were most likely purchased at fundraising sales. It is a common practice in the US and Canada (I’m guessing also in the UK) for libraries to cull books that are no longer circulating, or to get rid of extra copies of the same title, and sell them in annual library sales. The money goes to help purchase new books for the patrons. Rarely are you buying a stolen book. You will know if the book has been “de-commisioned” when it has the UPC code inked out or WITHDRAWN stamped somewhere inside the book.

    Aren’t there charity shops where you can donate your books? I used to take my books to a local thrift store run by a children’s hospital, or to the Salvation Army or Goodwill, and sometimes attempted to sell them to a reputable used book dealers. We also have a paper recycler in northern Illinois that Joe and I visit on occasion who will pulp books. I do that with books I’ve read and no longer want in the house because the copy is in horrible condition (moldy, foxed pages, beaten up covers, etc.) that no healthy and sane person should ever be touching it again, let alone reading it.

    I will also confess to something absolutely unforgivable. I didn’t steal a book, but I did steal a dust jacket. And this is something that I know for sure goes on all the time. The prevalence of this unethical activity doesn’t justify what I did, but it is a non-violent crime that people are profiting from daily all over the English speaking world. This is my sin, Father: I took a very collectible dust jacket in good but not wonderful condition off of a copy of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel I found in our library, put it on a “naked” copy of the same edition of that title I happened to own, and then sold it in an online auction when I was desperate for money. Utterly shameful. When I got more than I ever anticipated I did same thing with a murder mystery novel dust jacket I found in the library, putting it on a copy I personally owned and selling it online. Twice only – decades ago when I was near poverty. And so guilt-wracked later about it that I never did it again.

    But as I say, it is a common practice among unethical and unscrupulous booksellers and goes on all the time. You can always tell if you have a stolen DJ when the lower part of the spine panel is town neatly torn off. This is where the shelving label is stuck on a library book. Tell tale sign of thievery. That part of a spine panel doesn’t get torn off in a neat square through accidental wear and tear; it’s deliberately removed.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    Do books that you borrow, and then lose, only to find again thirty odd years later count in this? You have, of course, got them when you shouldn’t have. If so, then guilty, m’Lud. They can’t be returned, as there is now no school library to return them to.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    No, never have, although I have one I was told to keep which I will mail back anyway.
    Our public library is always busy, always, although I know that there are more people when it’s miserable out and there was one evening when I wondered if they would have to call security to remove some of the sheltering folk. I’d rather have them sheltering there than in some basement stairs somewhere.
    I bought a book through Abebooks which came from a library in Ontario, but as was said, it was stamped removed and the bar code had been blacked out. When we were taking library practice courses we were taught to “weed the collection.” Some libraries dot the page ends when a book is borrowed. When you come to read the shelves if there isn’t a (say) red dot you know it hasn’t been borrowed in (say) a year. You can tell how long it’s been there, just sitting. We were reminded that we were not running a research library, we were to focus on our local area, the demonstrated interests of our patrons, and items of general interest. All of those are subject to personal judgement so we were to err on the side of inclusion. As a school librarian I was the sole person in charge of purchases and I reminded myself often that I was not a ten year old boy, nor did I have the right to stop anyone from reading anything within their competency. I had to defend the presence of an easy read novel involving hunting because we were trying to provide ESL teen boys with items of interest and no I wouldn’t prevent a good reader in grade two from reading it.
    We do try to cover our patrons interests but we are not to keep books forever when they’re not being used. We only have so much space. Public libraries do sell of unread items so you have to keep an eye out. My school library didn’t because teachers had a habit of becoming fixated on favourite books which they used for a lesson they had taught for 15 years, even if the book was no longer appropriate for today’s children. We weeded those when they became battered, packed them into boxes, marked them with “for recycling” stickers and shipped them off to the Board where they were destroyed. We didn’t tell the teachers because we didn’t like the hysterics that followed.

  13. snowy says:

    As a last and final resort, [or to cleanse the world of any Archers or Browns that might have infiltrated your book pile], there is always the Mushroom Book Recycler; an ideal gift for the (wo)man that has everything.

    The kits contain spawn, a growing bag, instructions* etc. everything one needs to produce a crop of mushrooms.

    [For extra bonus points, invite the author to dinner, serve them a mushroom risotto and watch them; eat their own words.]

    * NB. The sterilising step is very important and should never be skimped, [especially should you be considering an E L James, as you can never be quite sure what the previous owner might have been er… touching.]

  14. Peter Dixon says:

    Many libraries sell books that are classed as redundant stock. My local library has a shelf of ‘for sale’ books at 50p for a paperback and £1.00 for hardback. They hold annual bookstalls of over 1500 books – they don’t have space to stock everything and need money for new stock.Some of the stuff they sell is astonishing

    School and college libraries are often cleared of unread books, or sometimes the school closes and nobody wants the stock.

    I stole a book; ‘The Dictionary of Non-classical Mythology’, from my high school library (in a predominantly coal mining and ship building town) because no one had taken it out for ten years and I found it deeply fascinating – still do. The school was closed 5 years later. I can’t imagine why it was included in a non-academic working class school in the first place. This was 45 years ago.
    I’ve lent it to people and used it myself for reference, so I sort of justify the crime. Left where it was it would probably have been skipped when the school closed.

    Adam; you have established a Nabokovian link between game kit, buses, erotic photos and schooldays and included confession.Excellent!

  15. Ian Luck says:

    I have bought several really nice books from our local library, including a large format book about Hammer Films. It cost me a pound.

  16. Peregrine says:

    Good hardback copies of your Bryant and May novels are very hard to get hold of, even recent ones from 2016! There are a lot of damaged library ones!

  17. admin says:

    Peregrine, I imagine most of my readers are suffering from some kind of mental illness and certainly anger issues, so they probably bash the books together in blackout rages.

  18. Peregrine says:

    Haha! Doesn’t that cover us all at some stage? Incidentally you be glad to know I’ve converted my mother to B&M, I give her my paperbacks when I find a nice hardback!

  19. Alison says:

    I stole a book about the Weirmar Republic when I was doing my A levels. I was, still am actually obsessed with history and had never owned such a book. I would look at it and feel so happy. Not exactly overcome with guilt. The library was my sanctuary growing up so felt it was just a gift from a friend.

  20. Martin Tolley says:

    “Stealing” from libraries is a difficult one. In the UK most local libraries are funded out of local taxes, so, theoretically, as long as I don’t cross a county border, I have actually paid for some, part of, all of, some books.
    My local county council has famously gone near-bankrupt and attempted to close 21 of the libraries in the county. There has been a legal reprieve, but who knows for how long?
    So, “we” might be looking at a situation where if “we” don’t steal the books (we have paid for) they will be officially made unavailable to us.

  21. SimonB says:

    I’ll not try to put a link in, but if you search for Radio 4, Seriously, Late Returns there’s a podcast on this very subject. The blurb: Author Nicholas Royle visits libraries in Manchester, London and Paris to salve his literary conscience by returning books he borrowed from the libraries in the last century.

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