Ray’s Day on 22 August is also an opportunity to reflect on the different ways of promoting and encouraging reading around us. All initiatives are welcome, especially the most inventive ones, and each participation is important: we are told enough that young people (and the not-so-young) don’t read anymore or not enough to want to turn the tables and do our bit.
You may have already come across one of these little marvels at the bend in the road: they go by many names - book boxes, street libraries, biblioboxes, little free libraries, etc. - but they fulfil one and the same purpose. - But they all have the same function: to exchange books in a free way. When I was a bookseller, I used to regularly leave boxes full of boo
ks in the hallway of my building that I was no longer interested in or that I didn’t want to keep. The principle of the bibliobox is more or less the same and just as simple, although a little more elaborate: it consists of making a shelter - a sort of cosy nest - in which to place these books so that they can wait for their next “owner” in complete peace.
The bookcase works on the basis of exchange and sharing. If you leave a book, you can take one. If you put down ten books, you can take one, or three, or ten, as you like. And of course, if you take a book, you have to put one down: this is how the bookcase ecosystem is maintained (no need for light, no need to water).
I’ve already come across one or two book boxes in Paris (not that many for such a big city). Here in Berlin, they are legion and are often coupled with a wardrobe for clothes, a box for shoes and a box for children’s toys. This movement comes directly from the freegan movement, whose followers seek in mutual aid and sharing what they can no longer find in a consumerism that has run out of steam. On Facebook, members of freeganist groups regularly post photos of objects to be collected. Applied to books, the concept does not fail to excite. The most fervent users of biblioboîtes go so far as to buy their favourite books to put them in. Of course, these exchanges are free of charge and do not generate profits, neither for the donors nor for the authors and publishers: these non-market transactions fall within the scope of the exhaustion of rights, an exception to copyright recognised by the law and which allows, among other things, the second-hand book market. So if this is allowed, why not?
Your bookcase must nevertheless meet certain criteria.
First of all, make sure that your town or village council gives its approval before you start: it would be a pity if the rubbish collection service or the municipal agents threw away your splendid street library because you did not take the time to ask for permission. Or, like many other bookworms, you can choose to build your street library on your own property, for example by sticking it to your fence so that everyone can access it from the street. In either case, make sure the location is permanent before building or depositing.
Secondly, bear in mind that your bookcase will be exposed to all kinds of weather outside, so it should be rainproof and, if possible, moisture-proof. Purists will use desiccant bags found at the bottom of shoeboxes, while others will use newspaper to insulate the books from the shelf (change regularly). A transparent panel of flexible plastic nailed in front of the shelves will prevent rain from falling on the covers.
For the furniture itself, there are different schools of thought. Some do-it-yourselfers decide to build everything from scratch, panels and shelves. Others recycle, recovering a soapbox, an old shelf, a sideboard, a cupboard from Emmaus or an attic, which they refurbish, repaint and recycle. Others go shopping at Ikea and buy a ready-made shelf. There are no rules, only constraints: those of the place in which you will install your street library. So there’s no point in transforming Grandma’s Norman cupboard into a bookcase if you’re going to fit it into an alleyway where there’s barely room to pass. Keep it simple and functional, but go easy on the decoration.
Finally, bookcases are fragile ecosystems and require a minimum of maintenance: empty the rubbish from those who mistake your library for a dustbin, check that some books are not rotten or too damaged, clean from time to time, restock as needed and desired. Little work in fact, to give birth to a meeting point which can perfectly fit in the framework of an association, a group of friends, and which will undoubtedly give this place a festive side which it did not have before.
Sharing culture is everyone’s business: we can’t complain that people don’t read any more if we don’t give ourselves the means to make reading accessible and attractive. The non-commercial sector also has a role to play in boosting an otherwise moribund industry that is plagued by pessimism. The good news is that we can all do it. The bad news is... there is no bad news.
A suggestion for celebrating Ray’s Day? Build a book box.