The Tragedy of the Commons Has Now Come to Little Free Libraries

26732673623_4e573e8784_hLittle Free Library supporters have encounters many of society's ills since the movement launched some years ago, including vandalism and bureaucracy, and now LFL operators in Minnesota are getting a first-hand lesson in an economic theory called the tragedy of the commons.

TwinCities.com reports that lately someone has been going around and cleaning out Little Free Libraries in and around St. Paul. No one knows who it is, but some LFLs have been hit multiple times.

Gladhill made a point to keep it well stocked, as have others who have erected the often-ornate book-cubby-on-a pole structures outside their homes as tangible tributes to the joys of reading.

But about two months ago she noticed her little library had been cleaned out, which was unusual. This has since happened more than a dozen times. Gladhill restocked each time, but soon found her large inventory of giveaway volumes in her Summit-University residence depleted.

“Our Little Free Library has been totally pillaged,” she lamented on Facebook this week. “I think we’re going to close it down for awhile, which bums me out.”

One Little Free Library operator has even been marking his books and later finding them in used book stores. Other supporters have reported catching glimpses of the perpetrator(s).

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Sue O’Neill wrote on the Merriam Park/Union Park Neighbors page that “I saw a gray-haired gentleman empty one in Highland this past weekend. I could not get to the door fast enough to say anything. He was moving at a good clip.”

Another Facebook user said: “My Little Free Library has been totally cleaned out numerous times. The last time it happened, I actually saw the man who drove up and emptied it. I called out to him as he scampered to his car with all the books, ‘Well, did you at least leave one?’ He just drove away.”

“I did witness an individual pulling up to one in the rain, dashing out of the car, scooping all books out of LFL, tossing them in the back of their car, and dashing away,” a Mac-Groveland page member posted. “Crazy.”

This is not a new phenomenon; there are similar reports from Lincoln and Omaha Nebraska; Iowa; Bismarck, ND; Boise, ID; Frederick, MD, Austin, TX; Albuquerque, NM; and San Francisco.

In some cases the thief has even taken the whole unit, rather than just the books.

This is in fact such a common occurrence that the founder of the Little Free Library movement now has a standard response.

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When Todd Bol’s 3-year-old nonprofit, also known as Little Free Library, is  informed that a LFL has been cleaned out, the organization will usually send a replacement box of books as well as a placard for the unit and a stamping kit to clearly identify the books’ charitable origin.

It is generally assumed that the books are being stolen so they can be traded in at used book stores like Half-Price Books, and volunteers have been stamping books so that the stores know to decline the books when they are brought in.

I'm sure most used bookstores are pretty good about refusing the books, but the effort has only seen limited success at stemming the tide. The stamp isn't going to stop the determined thief from selling online, after all.

That could be why a number of volunteers have opted to instead shutter their Little Free Library. The San Francisco LFL mentioned above has since closed, and a check of the LFL website reveals that all of the Little Free Libraries in Omaha and Lincoln are gone.

The thieves are taking advantage of a situation and ruining it for everyone - just like you would expect based on the theory of the tragedy of the commons.

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As you may recall from your college economics class, the tragedy of the commons is a term coined to describe a situation where a shared resource is depleted by people over-using it for their own selfish ends.

The idea was first described in the 1830s, but only became widely known in 1968 when ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote a paper on it. Investopedia has a good explanation:

The tragedy of the commons is a very real economic issue where individuals tend to exploit shared resources so the demand greatly outweighs supply, and the resource becomes unavailable for the whole. Garrett Hardin, an evolutionary biologist by education, wrote a scientific paper titled "The Tragedy of the Commons" in the peer-reviewed journal Science in 1968. The paper addressed the growing concern of overpopulation, and Hardin used an example of grazing land when describing the adverse effects of overpopulation.

Common grazing lands yield adequate food for herd animals as long as the number of grazing animals is limited from natural population control such as disease. If, however, the natural controls are circumvented or do not come to pass, the population of herd animals increases and the grazing land is unable to support the larger population. Hardin's point was if humans faced the same issue as in the example with herd animals, each person would act in his own self interest and consume as much of the scarce resource as possible, making the resource even harder to find.

In the case of the Little Free Libraries, the thieves stole enough books that supporters stopped restocking the libraries, and instead took them down. The thieves ruined a shared resource through their own greed.

If that's not an example of the tragedy of the commons, I don't know what is.

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About Nate Hoffelder (11598 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

4 Comments on The Tragedy of the Commons Has Now Come to Little Free Libraries

  1. I’ve seen one such LFL box west of Downtown Albuquerque, near a park. There are always books in it; makes me realize I should add some someday. Someone else sets up something similar, a display of books for children, at our Downtown Growers Market (April through October). No adult could walk away with armload of books in that venue. Those who give away books might think of setting up stands in well traveled locations where theft would be noticed quickly. Also local libraries have “book stores” where donated books (CDs, DVDs, magazines, etc.) are sold at low prices to make some money for library activities, so lots of books available that way.

  2. It being cleaned out is not necessarily a bad thing. When the Little Free Library in my neighborhood has been stuffed full of books, I have taken 3-4 books at a time to distribute to other places, such as a local laundromat.

    I have noticed that books placed in the laundromat are gone within several days. I got similar results from taking books outside a dumpster to the laundromat. [The laundromat’s owner is book-friendly, so I know the owner didn’t throw them away.]

    The Little Free Library in my neighborhood got cleaned out about six months ago. It is back to almost full. I doubt that the person who took all the books got any more than $2-$5 for his efforts. Several years ago I took a cardboard box of books to a used book store, and got all of $5 for it- which is what I had predicted. As there is little money to be had in selling used books to used book stores, I wouldn’t worry about it. Maybe he got more money by selling them at a flea market or garage sale.

  3. Well, I know it’s not FBA resellers on Amazon… at least not the ones doing well. They’re pretty solid business operators and seek big ROI. Popular books that tend to make it into LFLs usually aren’t the items they seek.

    That said, I live in a community that supports LFL. We’ve got several up all around the Village, including on the elementary school’s grounds which is the one my family volunteered to keep stocked and clean.

  4. This is not the tragedy of the common, in which a shared resource is abused; rather, this is petty larceny, in which a public resource is stolen and quickly converted to cash.

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