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?



The book share can and does happen here in Portland. However, there is much less trust in America (sadly, for good reason) in the US. A couple things I saw in Germany would most likely not fly.

I went to a youth rec house where the fridge was filled with colas, juices, beer. It was all paid on an honor system with an open basket for the money. I can't see that working here.

The high school/gymnasium I attended did not have locks or doors on the lockers. I was only there 4 weeks but I never heard of or saw anyone stealing the many bags, etc that were left in them. This seems highly unlikely here, even in small towns.

Sajit P

The real question is - how many of the books on that shelf are bestsellers or otherwise popular. A book shelf full of "garbage" read, are unlikely to get stolen. Vandalized perhaps, but not stolen.

el riddler

Zip Car isn't the same at all. You still have a driving check and a valid credit card required, not everyone can get in. You are charged for the service on an hourly basis, and the cars have GPS tracking. You are also penalized heavily for not abiding by the times you tell them you need the car online. It's not as easy as seeing one on the street, using your card, and going for a spin.


Actually, I think this subject was covered pretty sell in a book called - hhmmm - what was it? Oh yeah FREAKONOMICS!

Check out pp 45-51 in the old edition.


@ James, #48

I completely disagree! I think socioeconomic status is far less important than the overall character of the neighborhood. You are much more likely to see theft in a wealthy neighborhood where residents don't interact with or know each other than in a poor neighborhood that is very cohesive and protective of its members. In a situation where neighbors know each other, individuals are significantly less likely to misbehave, regardless of income level. I read an interesting study in one of my urban sociology class--they put items in well-lit and un-lit areas of wealthy/cohesive, poor/cohesive, wealthy/uninvolved, and poor/uninvolved neighborhoods. The items were stolen from the 'uninvolved' neighborhoods regardless of how wealthy or well-lit the area was. You can probably find the study, I believe the author's argument was referred to as the 'eyes on the street' argument. And from my personal experience of growing up an upper-middle class neighborhood and not knowing my neighbors, I know I wouldn't stop someone from taking a car, bike, etc in my neighborhood because I would have no clue who they were, if it was theirs, etc! Now I live in a lower income area with a good community, and I would certainly stop theft because I would know whose things were being stolen and have a vested interest in helping the victim.



In Vienna, Austria, the city government come up with the idea to finance "city bikes", bicycles that would stand around and could be used by anyone.

In the first round they just put bicycles there, and (not surprising to an economist) within days they were all gone. Many brought to eastern Europe, many repainted and used privately, some thrown into the river by teenagers, etc.

In the second round they stand around chained to a bicycle holder. With a credit card (to identify yourself) you can get one out for free for an hour (one Euro for additional hours). The downside now is that you have to give it back at one of these designated points. However, there are plenty of these points all around the city, and people use these bikes now to get around.

On the whole I think it is a revolutionary concept. Paris has already adopted it.


There is an entire store, actually warehouse, in Baltimore dedicated to this idea. It is called the Book Thing and all books are free. Some people take, some give and some do both. It seems to be working fine.


As soon as I saw the photo I knew exactly where this bookshelf was. I studied in Bonn in undergrad and used this same bookshelf many times. At first I thought it would be only really old books no one wanted but I found that many of the books were very interesting and somewhat new. Sometimes when I would need to get away from UniBonn for lunch, I would head to Poppelsdorfer Allee to enjoy lunch and to borrow a book for an hour at this bookshelf.

As for the weather worthiness, I can attest that this bookshelf can withstand rain and snow quite well.

Many days I wish that I was back studying in Germany and this post helped bring back fond memories of Bonn.


I was in Macau, China recently and one of the most surprising things I saw were *working* arcade games machines sitting outside on the street. I don't know about the US, but I can't imagine one of those lasting long here in Sydney - it'd either be stolen or trashed within a week.


Glad someone esle mentioned Bryant Park! Right in the midle of NYC and appears to run like a dream.

I'm from Australia and loved the third space concept.


To summarize what this bookshelf in the park and the DVD vending machine example shows is not only that in developing countries the labour cost is cheaper and in developing countries the cost per employ to sell things are expensive or the fact that,civilization and the trust must happen, as mentioned by many. This could happen in Japan and Germany, but difficult in the third world countries: such as the Dominican Republic as Jose said. Therefore, what needs to be done in developing countries is to teach them the morals. Hense, in order to do that education in school, home, therefore agian parents must be educated to teach their child. So this shows also that education is very important and is what the developing countries need.

Kevin in McLean, VA

I think the argument can be made that we not only have that level of mutual trust (or Social Contract, as it has been called in another recent Freakonomics blog post) but we have a higher level here in the USA. Several other posters have mentioned Redbox and here in the Washington, DC area we have a company that rents cars on an hourly basis (Zip Car) completely over the internet (no face to face identity verification, cars are available at selected parking areas around town) and a bicycle rental outfit (SmartBike DC) that operates on the same principle. It takes a much larger leap of faith to loan an automobile or a bike to someone sight unseen than it does to leave a bunch of old books on a beat up old bookshelf in the park.


Up until maybe 6 years ago, I bought my Christmas trees from a guy several blocks from my house in PA. He cut trees from country property that he owned and stacked them against his garage behind his house with a sign on the street. His directions were to pick a tree and then put $10 in his mail slot on his front door. He quit doing it because he sold the property, not because it was failing. We used to love to get really big, 9' tall trees from him, and I was said to see him retire from that side business.


@35 -- I have not seen these book exchanges very often at coffeeshops, but I have seen them at many US campgrounds. Admittedly, a campground is not quite the same as a park, in that people are likely staying for at least a night (and often longer), but the exchanges were generally in places that were out of the weather, but not "guarded".

I think the real reasons it worked were that

(1) People see themselves as part of a community. (If only "people who like the outdoors".) This provides an incentive to cooperate, as mentioned in @53.

(2) The cost of cooperating is low. When someone is done with a book, they may not want to keep carrying it.

(3) The value of defecting is low. The cash value and liquidity of a used book are low enough that it isn't worth going too far out of your way to steal. (And so newspaper stands work -- even the freebie stands.)


No doubt on the weatherproof thing. That wouldn't last summer or winter here in the heartland. Or a wet spring or fall, for that matter. Indoors here, though, there are as many free book exchanges in coffee shops and what not as there are...probably coffee shops. Except maybe Starbucks. We have an honesty box food stand here, too. Interesting, I think, in a place where they chain down trashcans. Whatever.


I know which things I wish to see in my area:

Umbrella stands (with Shared Umbrellas)

Bike racks (with Shared Bikes)

I doubt I will ever see this, but I can hope!

Colin Keesee

This story reminds me of my experience as an exchange student in Germany. I remember being impressed by how clean and safe the Hamburg suburb, Norderstett was. Even my safe and clean suburban hometown in suburban Los Angeles did not stack up to Norderstett's safety and cleanliness. I am glad that I was there as a high school student and not a college graduate with a degree in Economics; because if I were there now, I would be looking at everything through the lens of public goods, externalities, rent seeking and the tragedy of the commons.

When it came to the issue of externalities and public goods, it seemed like the right amounts were produced or at least more than one would expect. When it came to crime and rent seeking, there was a lot less than one would expect for a city of its size and it was reflected by how few fences and gates were present. The most noteworthy aspect of that community was that the tragedy of the commons was more of a triumph of the commons.

Norderstett would seem to break a lot of rule of Economics regarding how people behave in the context of cities and life in proximity to others. Public goods are produced at a fairly efficient level, rent seeking cost are low and the commons are are not abused and very little of this could be explained through the injection of incentive by government.

When I was there and I asked citizens of that city why their town's public and private spaces were so well maintained, they said that is just how it is. Further questions revealed that they would not even consider stealing, dirtying up common areas or even keeping an ugly garden or an ugly facade on their home if the public can see it.

Combining what I gathered from the residents of Norderstett with the Economics that I have learned in the years since that overseas trip, I realized that they are not breaking the rules of Economics but essentially circumventing them. The people in that town have a set of non pecuniary incentives, which make their community such an agreeable place. In a community where most families have lived there for generations, if not several centuries, public standing in the community is important. The carrot and stick of public shame or public esteem is what drives people to clean up their messes in public areas, to invest a lot in their property as far it produces public goods and to keep down rent seeking cost by not stealing or trespassing even if it would be easy to do so.

With that strong set of incentives being imposed through social custom, altruism and threat of loss of standing in the community, communities can create a high level of mutual trust and a city like Norderstett could very well have a public book shelf that would not be subject to theft or vandalism or even books being returned late.



@ Jeremy

I've been to the that same store in Hay on Wye and between the 5 people in my group, looking for 30 minutes, only one of us was able to find a book worth paying the 25 pence. It is really just a novelty designed to bring people into the main bookstore where they sell good used books. What other stores would throw away they just put outside.


In Madison, Wisconsin, where I live, many bookstores--both used and new--have shelves of low-priced books (or even free books) outside, and many coffee shops have shelves of free books for browsing. I think both of those experiments are successful. On the other hand, some years ago, a public bookcase was set up inside the downtown civic performing arts center, to which people were asked to donate unwanted books and from which they could remove books. It was completely unattended. Two things happened: first, the quality of books quickly deteriorated, the 'good' books being taken and 'junk' books being left (ancient school texts, paperbacks with missing covers, etc.,) and second, so-called street people would gather up armloads of books and then try to sell them to the used book dealers down the street. The bookcase was removed after a few months and not replaced.

Jeremy Miles

In Hay on Wye, in the United Kingdom there is a an outdoor bookshop which has no one attending it most of the time - there are simply shelves with books, and a box to drop money into for the books you buy.