Monday, October 08, 2007

Book Attrition

Every Monday, I will be writing an essay on libraries (and will last as long as I can sustain it).

I was browsing the Read or Die website and I saw the blog entry entitled More on Coveting Books in which the author admits to stealing books from the library. Now this isn't a self-righteous post condemning them to a Twilight Zone bibliophile apocalypse (you know, that episode where a banker survives a bomb so he can finally read all the books he wants except he breaks his reading glasses) but it is a valid concern--the fact that those who should patronize libraries are the same bibliophiles likely to steal the books. And this isn't an isolated incident. Even local writer Jessica Zafra talks about the act as well and I remember (but my memory may fail me) that in the now defunct Flip magazine (which was one of the best local magazines in my opinion), there was even an article that talked about the tricks of the trade to elude bookstore and library security (i.e. using thinner to take out the tag).

For me, stealing from the public library (and I'm using "public" in the loosest sense for while a private university's library isn't exactly the most "public" of libraries, it is still relatively open to most people) is this abnormal yet sympathetic crime. Abnormal because it's not like one can't read or -gasp- borrow the book from the library (or the Philippine reality of photocopying books--too bad we don't have a copyright collective for photocopiers unlike the UK). Sympathetic because I know all too well the desire to own a book, to peruse it at one's own time and schedule, to jot down notes on it, or to have the ability to share it with anyone at will. There will be many excuses a person will tell themselves to justify their theft, everything from not being able to afford the book to it being unavailable at the local bookstore to taking "better" care of the said book. And in a certain sense, bibliophiles thieves look like saints compared to the vandals and opportunistic student/staff who would recklessly destroy books (in my high school library, I saw a novel that looked fine but when I opened it, the insides were cut out and there was an encyclopedia whose vital entry was torn out in a rush to complete that day's homework). At least library thieves actually read the books! But the real problem here is that a book you steal from the public library is one less book that's available to everyone else. Worse, while an institution like a bookstore might take into account book thefts when they set the price of their books, libraries aren't likely to utilize such a system. Or even if they do, the expenses get shouldered by the honest library patrons. And at the end of the day, the library staff isn't going to distinguish a ruined book from a stolen-but-read book--both are cases of missing inventory. I think there are two kinds of bibliophiles in the world: those who want to spread the love and those who don't (you know, the type that dislikes something once it becomes mainstream or everyone else joins the bandwagon). I don't see any sense in appealing to the morals of the latter but if you belong to the former, isn't stealing a self-defeating process, especially if later in life you take up the mantle of promoting reading? (Or is that penance?)

On one hand, stealing books isn't high on the list of crimes. I mean I doubt if God denies you access to Heaven because you stole a book or two in your lifetime. Yet missing books add up when it comes to a library's logistics. A library losing a book or two every month eats up the institution's budget, and it's not like public libraries are known for their overflowing funding. And the problem with book theft is that the thief doesn't have to be the same person to have that kind of a negative impact on a library. Worse, I don't think the thieves are thinking about the librarians. Who takes the blame after all if a book goes missing? Worse, it messes up the librarian's database. I mean books are the easiest thing to misplace in a library. In my experience, the book I want is seldom in the shelf it's supposed to be. Sometimes, it's on a table somewhere, at other times, hidden in a secret shelf by the previous borrower. Now librarians not only take care of books, they put them back in the proper shelf. In the case of stolen books, a lot of time must be consumed before the librarian can come to the conclusion that the book is indeed stolen rather than simply misplaced. It's not like book thieves are the romantic type that leave notifications of their theft at the front desk.

Of course there are levels of culpability. I mean I won't blame someone who "accidentally" steals a book by simply being absent-minded. Or perhaps even the repentant library thief who returns the book at a later date. But the real problem I think is the fact that stealing books is the equivalent of the secret handshake of bibliophiles: if you've never stolen a book, you're not a true book lover.

There are, of course, several possible solutions to the problem. The most obvious is to escalate the resources and the technology in enforcing the rules. But this, I think, is ultimately futile. Every generation will have its bibliophiles and from those bibliophiles, there will be book thieves. As long as they're determined, they'll find a way to work around the library's security. (E.C. Abbott has a short history of book theft and infamous thieves.) The second problem there is that resources that could have gone to acquiring more books or staff instead gets diverted to book security. The third reason is that it alienates the patrons. Honestly, I don't want my library experience to be the equivalent of entering and exiting Fort Knox. That's not exactly the best way to encourage people to patronize the library. So what are the other possible solutions?

One is to design a better cataloging system. Again, the biggest problem book theft poses is that it's not immediately noticed. Hopefully, a better system will address this. If there's a way to check each and every shelf at the end of the day, that would be great but I doubt if that's feasible with today's current technology, especially if it's a large library (but I'm not a librarian so who knows? How does your library keep track of thefts?). But it's something to work on. In many ways, an unreturned book is better than a stolen book. For one thing, the librarian knows it's missing and for another, there are fees to compensate for the book (although it's arguable how much late fees actually compensate for the loss of a book--not all books are equal after all).

Based from some confessions of book thefts, some (not all) of them happen during the bibliophile's childhood, when supposedly they didn't know any better. Perhaps educating children about the long-term consequences of stealing from public libraries might be an option so that the ignorance excuse can't be used. Unfortunately, that doesn't address adult book thieves, or even the negligent professor/teacher.

David Isaacson in his article Let Them Steal Books postulates that libraries could have a section for books to be taken, whether it's books that the library will dispose of anyway or contributions under the "take one, leave one" principle. While this might work, it's not foolproof. I mean some book thieves steal books because they're mainstream (i.e. Harry Potter) so it's unlikely that kind of book will be on the disposable shelf. On the other hand, another type of book thief is the one that likes to acquire rare books because they can't get them anywhere else. Again, the library is unlikely to place them in the disposable shelf.

The most effective method I think--and perhaps the most difficult--is to nip it at the source. Let's face it, our society, to a certain extent, lauds book theft. I think it has to do with a mixed sense of responsibility. On one hand, we know that stealing is wrong. On the other, we know that reading books is right. When you combine the two, the latter seems to justify the former. That's why fellow bibliophiles are sympathetic to book thieves (those who don't make a career out of it), especially when it comes to something as impersonal as the public library (when it's their private collection however, it's a declaration of war!). The solution is simple really: let's simply not approve of book theft, of praising bibliophiles who perform such an act, or be ashamed that we've never stolen a book or actually returned a book on time. The answer is so basic it's mind-boggling! But as I said, it's difficult to implement because people and fellow bibliophiles will resent the idea. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if I was labeled a self-righteous troll who's not really a bibliophile for talking about this whole incident (and then my list of non-related crimes and faults will be brought up). And if that's the emotion you're feeling right now, well, it just goes to show how we should change our paradigm of book theft, don't we? Stealing from public libraries I think has been reduced to something like a white lie even if it's probably a serious matter to the libraries. By no means am I asking that book thieves be given the death penalty or be equated with political corruption, but please, let's not glorify the act. At the end of the day, it's not just the library that suffers: it's the patrons both current and future.

No comments: