‘Mini libraries? Do people actually use those?’ exclaimed a colleague when they heard about this article. Indeed, the boxes propped up in front gardens and filled with free, second-hand books sometimes seem a bit lonely, lost in the no man’s land between good intentions and uselessness. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Tekst: Eelco Salverda, afd. Communicatie / Foto's: Elmer Spaargaren and Anouk Schippers
Research topics are sometimes, quite literally, lying in wait on the street. You just have to “see” them. ‘Adriaan came up with the idea,’ explains PhD student Anouk Schippers, who investigated the use of mini libraries. Credit where credit’s due. Schippers is referencing her supervisor, Adriaan Soetevent. ‘I see these boxes quite often and I wondered how they’re actually used,’ adds the professor of Microeconomics. ‘Do they work? After neighbourliness, this is more or less the most basic form of the sharing economy. It’s pretty much anonymous, free and unregulated. As far as we know, no research has been done into these mini libraries. A lot of research has been done into Uber and Peerby but for those, you can analyse the transactions of a web platform. This is completely under the radar.’
How and how often do people use mini libraries? What role does the owner play? Do users also contribute books? How valuable are the collections? It didn’t take long for Schippers and Soetevent to compile a long list of interesting questions. But how do you actually investigate something like the mini library? Schippers lights up as she starts to explain: ‘Via the website minibieb.nl we contacted 199 owners in the six northern provinces; 56 of whom participated in the research. They each drew up inventories of their collections and then kept weekly records for six months of what went in and out, and whether they themselves or borrowers added or took out a book. Quite the challenge!’ She reflects admiringly on the owners’ dedication. ‘They all stuck with it to the end. They were so dedicated! For some of them, it was almost like their baby – they put so much time and love into it.’
There are now more than 1,500 mini libraries in the Netherlands, each containing an average of around 50 books. Are they really all that lonely? ‘I don’t think so,’ refutes Soetevent. ‘I get the impression that more and more are cropping up. Last year, there was even the first Open Mini Library Day.’ And indeed, Schippers’ research does reveal a positive picture. Two to five “transactions” (a book added or borrowed) per week: that’s what the owners predicted before they took part in the research project. In reality, that number was actually much higher, averaging between 10 and 15 transactions per week. And users also contribute books: around 70% of the new additions to the collections come from other users. ‘Users borrow a lot, but they also bring a lot back – even books that they hadn’t borrowed,’ summarizes Schippers.
A positive side-effect of the research is that the owners are even more dedicated to their ‘babies’. They’ve done up the boxes, added a second box and some of their family members have even started their own mini libraries. ‘They’ve made sure that everything is nice and tidy,’ says Schippers. ‘Even though you’d prefer conditions to remain unchanged during a research project,’ smiles Soetevent. ‘But something like that is hard to control.’ According to Schippers, a mini library works best if the owner is active. ‘For example, you can use Facebook to announce new books. It’s important to involve the local community. A strong social bond in the neighbourhood makes a big difference.’
Skippers also collected information about the value of the collections. ‘For example, you can look up the price of a second-hand book online. And you can gauge the popularity of a book using rating sites. Even if the range of books in the collection doesn’t change, its economic value may decline. People might become less interested because tastes change. So from an economic point of view, an unchanging supply is not profitable,’ adds Soetevent.
Some extraordinary stories came to light through her conversations with the owners, Schippers explains. One of the mini libraries had been “plundered” and one owner even came across his books on second-hand buying and selling website Marktplaats. This brings Soetevent to a number of characteristics of the sharing economy: solidarity and reciprocity. Borrowers tend to feel a moral obligation to return the same or a different book. ‘If someone doesn’t return books, as an owner you don’t really mind. But if you then see them for sale elsewhere, that doesn’t go down very well. It creates friction. Why does that bother us? I think it’s because the seller violated the social rules and removed the books from the social function that the library has in the neighbourhood.’
Has Schippers’ caught the mini-library bug from the owners? We’re not so sure. In any case, she talks passionately about her research. Has she changed her opinion about mini libraries? ‘Absolutely. I didn’t expect the owners to be so committed to them,’ she says. Then she laughs. ‘And now I see them everywhere. On holiday in France, I was constantly shouting “there’s one there too!” and I took photos of them. My favourites are those little coloured “bird houses”.’ ‘With empirical studies like these, you often start to see your research topic everywhere,’ adds Soetevent dryly.
‘When I see one of the libraries, I always take a look to see what’s in it,’ Schippers continues. Not surprisingly, the mini libraries in Friesland tend to have a lot of Frisian books, with the odd detective novel and thriller thrown in the mix. But she’s never borrowed a book herself. ‘I need to cut down on the number of books I have at home,’ she explains. Perhaps it’s a good moment to start a mini library?
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