Richard Murray put up Little Free Library #15700 in the North Chicago suburbs in 2014. He spent several years acting as its volunteer steward, trying out different ideas like adding a guest book for comments and a water dish for dogs. He’d reached that happy moment where the community had adopted the Little Library as their own, and very little maintenance was required on his part.

But then something disturbing happened. He went out to his Library one day to find that someone had completely emptied it out; all of the books were gone. He contacted seven other Little Free Library stewards in the North Chicago area, and discovered that all of them had the same issue. This was systematic book theft.

Richard's Little Library in North Chicago

Richard’s Little Free Library in North Chicago.

Some of the stewards responded by taking down their Libraries and bringing all the books inside, either temporarily or permanently. Some put up notes on their Libraries, explaining the concept and asking that people treat the Library respectfully. Richard decided to put a motion-sensing camera in a nearby tree to see if he could catch the thief in action. In the following months, things went back to normal, and it seemed like the book thief had moved on.

But then, Richard’s Library was cleaned out twice in a span of two weeks, and the second time Richard happened to be home when he saw a van pull up to his Little Free Library book-sharing box. He watched as a man jumped out, took every book out of the Library, and put the books in his car. Richard went out and spoke with him. Richard explained the purpose of a Little Free Library, but the man insisted that he was just an “avid reader,” and drove off.

At this point, it was clear that this guy wasn’t going to stop. He was probably clearing out every Little Library in the North Chicago area and re-selling the books for whatever meager profit he could make. Richard decided to see how widespread this issue was, so he reached out to 60 stewards in the North Chicago area asking if they’d experienced book theft. 25 of them reported back that they were dealing with this same issue.

Upon learning this, Richard went to the Wilmette and Skokie police to file a complaint. His message was simple: we want this to stop, what can we do?

Fortunately, he’d been able to snap a few photos of the man that cleaned out his Library, and he brought that evidence to the police. By the time he spoke with the Wilmette Police Department, he discovered that his book thief had already been arrested on larger charges.

The Wilmette Police also told him that in the future, they could prosecute for trespassing if there was a notice like the following posted on the Library:

This Little Library is intended for the borrowing and exchange of books in the community, a few books at a time (up to 5). The books are not for re-sale, and we ask that if you’re putting new books into the Library, please affix a NOT FOR RESALE sticker or write it inside the book. Thank you.

According to the Wilmette Police, the key is that the notice needs to state a book limit that’s clearly less than the entire contents of the Library, and it must say something along the lines of “This is a lending library and the books are not for resale.”

Unfortunately, many police departments don’t recognize this type of act as a crime. But if you’re experiencing something similar to what happened in North Chicago, consider following Richard’s approach. Go to the local police and ask: what can we do to make this stop? In his case the police were very interested in a thief traveling around the area looking to steal property.

Here are some of Richard’s key takeaways:

  • If you’re dealing with consistent book theft, post a notice on your Library explaining that it’s a lending library, that the books are not for resale, and that there is a limit on how many books any particular person should take. (Being sensitive to the spirit of Little Free Libraries, Richard made his notice as small and as friendly as possible. He also did NOT encourage anyone to confront the book thief directly.)
  • Ask your Library patrons to sticker, stamp, or write NOT FOR RESALE in sharpie on the books they put in your Little Library. This won’t necessarily prevent a bookstore from buying them, but it might deter a thief, and it helps the police if the books are found.
  • Notify area bookstores that someone may be coming in and trying to sell books that come from book-sharing boxes. Ask them to refuse any books that are clearly marked as having come from a Little Free Library.
  • If you’re at the point where you want to go to the police, add a motion-sensor camera (often sold as trail cameras in outdoor goods stores) near your Library that will snap a photo when it senses movement. It’s helpful to have a photo of the book thief, or at least a car license plate, when making a complaint.
  • Communicate with your neighbors and other Little Library stewards in your area. It may well be happening to the other stewards, and your neighbors may be able to help you catch the book thief in action.

That being said, the suggestions above may not be a good fit for your neighborhood. If people see a camera near a Library (Richard hid his in a tree) or a message saying they can only take a certain number of books, they may decide to just not use it anymore.

If you take the actions outlined above, you could destroy the sense of neighborly trust, friendliness and fun that’s inherent to Little Free Library book-sharing boxes. It’s up to every volunteer steward to strike a balance. Too much obvious security could diminish the Library’s attractiveness, but consistent book theft could be worse.

At the end of the day, all you can do is take reasonable steps and remember that Little Free Libraries are supposed to be a fun way to share books and connect with your neighbors; they shouldn’t be a constant source of stress. Sometimes the best solution is to move the Library to a coffee shop, a community center, or a school where there are lots of people around at all times.

The good news is that many stewards dealing with a book thief have found that eventually, the thief discovers there isn’t much money to be made in re-selling books, and moves on. Or local bookstores figure out what’s going on and refuse to buy the books.

For Richard, the book theft seems to be over now that the culprit is in jail, and he mentioned that some good did come out of an otherwise frustrating situation: many of the area stewards now stay in touch with each other, offering ideas and support.

Want more? We did some research into who would vandalize a Little Free Library in the first place, and we’ve written up several stories of how stewards have dealt with vandalism and kept running their Little Libraries.

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