a grainy sky background with a little library hut and some skeptical eyebrow raised emojis
Does this just exist so you feel less guilty about chucking out the 12 Rules for Life (Image: Getty Image/The Spinoff)

BooksJune 5, 2024

Are little libraries doomed to be filled with rubbish books? An argument with myself

a grainy sky background with a little library hut and some skeptical eyebrow raised emojis
Does this just exist so you feel less guilty about chucking out the 12 Rules for Life (Image: Getty Image/The Spinoff)

Why does it feel so sacrilegious to throw away a book? And do the little free libraries that dot our suburbs primarily exist to assuage our guilt? Book lover Shanti Mathias debates book realist Shanti Mathias.

I was outraged to read about the Invercargill Rotary Club recycling books that weren’t sold in their annual sale! Why didn’t they give them away for free? Like maybe in one of those little free libraries at the side of the road?

Look, you and I both know the problems with the little free libraries. They are often filled with old, unwanted books in bad condition. I’ve done what I can to fix it: initially enamoured with the little libraries that proliferated around my neighbourhood when I moved to Auckland, I started to see that they were filled with trash. The plywood walls were straining at the shoddily-glued seams, filled instead with empty dust jackets, library copies of Sophie Kinsella novels with the barcodes scribbled out, pamphlets and photo albums, guides to using Windows XP from at least two decades ago. 

I started swerving past on my morning runs. If the boxes were full, I would do a little cull, and put the books I couldn’t imagine anyone ever wanting to read into the bin to dispose of them. If you think about it, isn’t that what the people who originally put them in there – or donated them to the Invercargill Rotary club – were doing too?

a collage of little brightly painted houses stuffed with books
Some of the many Lilliput/Little Free Libraries around the country (Photo: Supplied)

The way you’re starting with excessive justification suggests you’re not so sure about this. Think about it this way: haven’t we found so many good books in little libraries? The Host was a perfect reread for a rainy week; it was a joy to read The Shipping News and put it back on the shelf three days later; your copy of Sabriel, one of your favourite books, comes from a little library too. 

Lots of people – us included – have put books in the boxes that we genuinely loved, and expected other people to enjoy too; sure enough, a week later they were gone. Who are you to determine what books are good and bad? Your empathy is not boundless: some people might still have old computers and find the Windows XP guide helpful. Just because you can’t imagine this person doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. 

The little libraries are a joyous community creation for sharing, not trash baskets – they’re a wonderful way for people to get books they might not be able to afford otherwise, without a transaction involved.

Sure, I won’t deny that there are lots of good books in the free libraries, and the ethos of the sharing idea is lovely. But books are just like any other objects: sometimes they’re useful, and sometimes they’re trash. There’s lots of ways sharing books could be good for community, but these libraries are anonymous spaces, not social. Imagine them filled with a different kind of object: a snarl of secondhand clothes, a pile of crockery, clumps of discarded electronic cords. Does it seem like such a beautiful idea now? Like all those things, books are mass-produced: there are lots of them, some useful and wanted, and some, frankly, not.

There’s every reason to support ways to redistribute stuff for free: run a book or clothing swap, or leave your still-working microwave on the berm. But at the end of it, you might still have an appliance on the lawn or 500 copies of The Da Vinci Code, and you’ll also just have to chuck them away. I’m just saying: let’s acknowledge that the primary purpose of little libraries is not to share books, but to help people feel less guilty about throwing away their books. 

orange backgrounds with john grisham and michelle obama books with angel wings
Some of the books Auckland Libraries has had to get rid of en masse, gone to a better place. (Image: Tina Tiller)

But books are not like other objects! They’re special! They’re beautiful! They’re funny! They’re the product of intellectual effort and thought! They’re one of the most amazing ways to understand how other people think! 

See, this kind of attitude is exactly why we have too many books in our house already. 

I love books! I need books! And I like the idea that other people who want books can get them affordably! 

OK, think of it this way: how much is it costing you to have all those books? Our bookshelf takes up maybe an eighth of the floorspace in our small room. Does it justify paying one eighth of your rent to keep a hundred or so dead trees covered in ink nearby? Storing books costs money: that’s why publishers pulp thousands of unsold copies of their books, and why New Zealand’s National Library got rid of 600,000 of its overseas collection a few years ago. Auckland’s actual library system, the biggest in New Zealand, acknowledges this problem too: books that aren’t being read are donated, sold or recycled – about 320,000 items a year. 

I love books: I just think that putting not-very-good books in wooden boxes in public space just externalises the problem into a place you’re not paying rent/a mortgage to fill. There’s no way to know who takes the books – is the good of the free libraries really outweighed by the fact that they’re publicly accessible rubbish bins for one very specific type of rubbish?  

You’re thinking about this in purely capitalist terms, as value for money. But the book boxes are a different paradigm entirely. Books can be shared! They can find their way to people who need them! They’re a way to resist the idea that the only way to appreciate something is as a transaction. 

I love the idea of sharing stuff, pursuing a common good, too. But instead of the little libraries, let me introduce you to an even more magnificent and radical idea: big libraries. They are actual buildings for books, not boxes. They are warm. Their books are catalogued and taken care of, so you’re much more likely to find something you actually want. There are staff who are paid to look at books that are coming out and buy them for the public – for people to read over and over, not just take home in an aspirational mood and never open again, like you did with Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. They also host events where people actually spend time together in the same room and get to interact with their community, not just idly wander past and wonder if someone nearby just broke up with their philosopher girlfriend and are disposing of her New Philosopher magazines. 

I worry that maybe the free libraries mean people don’t engage with their local public libraries. With lots of public services under threat at the moment, libraries aren’t in great shape; many are reducing hours or days that they’re open. There’s the oft-repeated line that no-one would invent public libraries again today – but since we have them, we should use them!

Big public libraries are more pleasant to visit, have a bigger selection of books that people actually want to read, provide heaps of services to the community. And get this: they’re also free. 

a wooden stair case in brightly lit daylight
2018, during the official opening of Tūranga, Christchurch’s central library – providing far more than just books (Photo: Kai Schwoerer / Getty Images)

But the publishing industry is struggling. It’s well known that mass-market, wildly popular books – your Sophie Kinsellas, your James Pattersons, your Atomic Habits – subsidise the books industry as a whole. The books you’re so ready to characterise as rubbish five years later are what makes it possible for the literary novels you like reading to exist. Publishers need us to buy – then maybe later donate – these kinds of books so that authors can get paid. 

Little libraries mean that people who didn’t read The Kite Runner in 2005 can read it now. Books aren’t food. They don’t expire. What’s the problem – is recycling books really a better option? 

Yes, it is beautiful that books can store knowledge and stories of all kinds for years – and the economics of the publishing industry are certainly difficult. When it comes to wanting to buy things to support nice stuff in the world, and also not wanting to buy things, perhaps I can refer you to this excellent argument that Gabi Lardies had with herself

Books, unlike most clothing, don’t contain much plastic (although their covers and glue can). They can be recycled and repurposed. Left to their own devices, they can also rot – and that’s not a bad outcome, is it, to be a home for fungi? Little libraries aren’t the worst option, either, but I think using them sometimes prevents us from looking straight at the truth that we have too much stuff. Too many books, too many clothes, too many knick-knacks. The little libraries, like op-shops, means that instead of shame or guilt about accumulating objects then throwing them out, we feel the warm altruistic goal of donating something. Even if all we’ve done is make it someone else’s problem! 

It’s great that things can be repurposed – but it’s also good to acknowledge that if you want your World of Warcraft fantasy art book to be read again in the future, putting it in a free library is not your best bet. 

OK then, random Auckland journalist who has decided that you’re an expert in the current book publishing model – what should I do with all the books I’ve read and don’t want any more then? 

Ideally, take them to a second-hand bookshop instead, where they actually know how to assess a book’s value and take care of it. That’ll give the book the best chance of finding another reader. Op shops aren’t ideal, as workers don’t always have time to sort through books and order them on the shelf in a way that helps people find them. If it’s a book you genuinely love, maybe you can share it with a friend with a heartfelt recommendation, and thereby increase the chance of it actually being read. 

What I’m hearing is that there are lots of ways to get books I no longer want into other readers’ hands… but… if it’s a recently-released, good-condition, relatively popular book… it might still be OK to put it in a free library. I’m writing to the Invercargill Rotary Club right now!

Wait, wait, before you post your letter, can you add in this pamphlet advertising my ruthless book disposal services? I want to leave it in little free libraries around the country.

Keep going!