You Can’t Have Outdoor Bookshelves in Every City


In Bonn, Germany, I noticed a bookcase full of books in the public park where I run, with a young woman removing one book and returning another. These are used books that make up essentially a free voluntary lending library.

Would this cabinet last undamaged in a U.S. city one day? I doubt it. Similar things exist elsewhere — such as outdoor vending machines for DVD’s in Kyoto, Japan. Both of these indicate a certain level of mutual trust in the population and a certain level of civility; both reduce the transactions costs of daily living: easier access to books in one case, 24-hour DVD availability in the other.

Mutual trust is important in reducing transactions costs, and this aspect of culture has been viewed by economists as helping to determine some economic outcomes. (Although how different levels of trust arise has not been considered by the mostly macroeconomists who worry about this; it’s creating trust that seems to me to be the central issue.)

How many other examples like the books and the DVD’s are there in foreign countries that we don’t see at home?


As people become more and more dependent on institutions to perform life-sustaining functions for them, trust becomes all the more important in our society. Unfortunately, I don't get the feeling walking down the street that people see themselves as living in one of the most trust-dependent societies on earth. Maybe most would not trust themselves. I always find it refreshing, however, when I do see an outdoor book stand or eat at a place that expects its customers to wait to pay. It gives me a chance to be trustworthy, an opportunity that, in our anonymous and debt-hardened society, is ofted ceded in the name of security.


I'm American born of Brazilian parents, when hosting visiting Brazilian friends/family, they're always amazed that our fast food joints have the self serve drink stations. They tell me that in Brazil it would never work, kids would just buy one cup and use it over and over again, without ever paying again.


A bit off topic but a similar program is on line at bookmooch -- you list the books you have and are willing to give away (by mailing) and then you list the books you want, or browse inventory available, and request the books you want which then get sent to you! New (to me) books for the price of postage.


@ james #48

I could not agree with you more.

I live in the carribean where, needless to say, the rich/poor gap is quite large. Something based on mutual trust would be impossible except within certain circles of society, which would then be based on previous knowledge and reputation of certain individuals, not trust of the general community at large. Those of low economic standing would rather steal the books and sell them (assuming they could find a buyer) rather than read them, assuming they can, which could, theoretically, depending on the book, provide a greater payoff for the individual.

I think the selfish behavior that leads to the theft of something like this is quite deterimental to the community at large even though an individual may be making a modest profit. Of course I exaggerate a bit, but really, if everyone in the community could read all the books in such a 'library', hopefully they would be something to the tune of how to's, encyclopedias, or whatnot, each person in the community could benefit and all could improve their education in some way, however small and informal that may be. Destruction of the system deprives the entire community of that privilidge.

"The individual benefits as an individual ... even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers"- Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons (1964)



I live in Canada, and frequently purchase flowers from a "serve yourself" greenhouse. Not only does this involve a degree of trust that individuals will not take the inventory, it requires a much deeper level that requires indivudals to pay for the flowers and leave exisitng funds from prior transactions in the "money jar".

I have also been to South Korea and observed the civility and trust in that culture. Perhaps these examples are a function of: marginal utility, respect for authority, self discipline, and perceived threat of punishment.


Daniel is not being cynical at all, he's being realistic. I think that, if you tried the same book shelf scenario shown above in every major US park, 95% would be damaged/stolen beyond repair within a week.


Actually, a lot of coffee shops (usually mom and pop ones) have a "give a book, take a book" shelf where you can take a book and leave one that you are no longer reading.

Johnny on the spot

Biking in Japan was a real eye opener--even in the most dense of cities no one locks their bike. Crime of course occurs, but the option of stealing someone's bike for profit is not an option that most people even consider. Note that most bikes were of the Amsterdam steel variety, but some were snazzy folding bikes that would go for around $500 in the US.

I would love for some US cities to get the type of public bike systems that some European cities enjoy (Barcelona, Amsterdam, Paris). For a modest yearly fee one has access to bikes locked to posts positioned throughout the city. It's a great way to get from your metro stop to the next point of destination.

Of course, if this were Chicago I'd probably get drunk and trash the bike for fun, but in Paris I behave myself.


Harvard square and nearby areas have several similar systems: they have "honor system" unmanned outdoor book sales (generally $3 a book). I don't know how many they get stolen, but I do know that virtually every time I stop by, someone asks me how to pay/who to pay, etc.

Kevin P.

It looks like you don't know your own country very well, Daniel. Where in the US do you live?


As an American who lives overseas, I've had many people comment upon our newspaper vending machines. You know, the kind where you put the coins in, open the door and are treated to 25 newspapers but only take one. They find it incredible that such a system works and say "where I come from, people would take them *all*.

Now, I'm not saying that Americans are more trustworthy - far from it. I'm just saying that once a system is in place, people tend to abide by the rules. If we had vending machines that granted one paper per purchase and then switched over to the system we have now, I doubt if it would work nearly as well. (Although I must admit I'm semi confused by the logic - what the hell are you going to do with 25 identical copies of the same newspaper?)

Steve Boyko

I saw just such a service in an urban transit station just north of Chicago two years ago. Great idea.


In India they'd sell all the books cheap in a sale and sell the furniture at some second hand shop. Next day there would be slums inhabitated with bhayyas who came as migrants. And they'd claim they lived there all there life.


Red Box Movies has dozens of outdoor (some inside malls, and the like) DVD vending machines in the D.C. area alone. I don't know if these work the same way as your example though. I know at least a few that are in 24 hour locations.


I think there may be more instances here in the US than you give credit to. I've seen honesty based food stands in many different states throughout New England and Pennsylvania, where I grew up. One takes there produce and drops the appropriate money in a locked box. This blog even posted a few months back about set-your-own-price coffee shops popping up in Seattle.

There problem here in the States is not that society will take advantage of an outdoor bookshelf. It is that we have been taught not to trust society, and so those ideas are never given a chance.


I think this is related. I know a family who spent time in Japan and had their daughter attend a local elementary school there (as opposed to an American school, which was available). They indicated that if the teacher was sick for just a day, the school would not even get a sub, because the students knew what they were supposed to do and would sit at their desks and obediently attend to their work, even without an adult present. Contrast that to America where the teacher cannot leave the classroom for more than a minute or havoc would break out.

It is easy to think "how nice that must be!" to have such well-behaved children, but one also has to think about the price the society pays to achieve that level of trust, in the lack of freedom of self-expression.

Belfast Brendy

I stayed in a hostel in Amsterdam and the bar was run via an honesty box - you took what beer / snacks you wanted and left what they cost. Admittedly the place was usually inhabited by priests and other religious, but still.

I've never seen an outside vending machine here in Ireland (I mean just for drinks) but I've seen them in the US and Puerto Rico.

Where I lived in South Korea I could leave my apt. door unlocked while I popped down to the store in my building. Likewise, delivery guys used to leave their scooters running while they ran indoors to deliver food etc. I really don't think it could happen in Ireland. Some of the foreign bars in Korea had give-and-take book shelves which seemed to work pretty well, and some other bars and hostels in SE Asia run similar schemes.


To those in East Asia who left front doors and bicycles unlocked, you weren't experiencing a more honest culture you were just lucky not to get ripped off. In Korea, I had a friend who had shoes stolen from outside his apartment. (And don't get me started on Korean cabbies.) I Japan I NEVER left my bike unlocked because I know of many incidents of bike theft; sure, I had a nice one but people there will take an unlocked bike even if just to ride it a bit--no less stolen for the owner.

People should be very careful about generalizations about cultures and services like this. If it would work or not depends a lot on the material. The books in Bonn might not get stolen (much), but what if the material was, say, pornography and not literature. You still think it would last?


In Lausanne, Switzerland there's a giant outdoor chess set, pieces about two feet high. It could be that it gets locked up at night, but I never saw any indication of that.

Jim Fowler

There is such a service on the corner of 55th and Ellis in Chicago, Illinois (that is, in Hyde Park, a couple blocks north of the University of Chicago). It's been there for the past few months, at least.