Are People Stealing Library Books to Sell Online?

A trip on the internetarchive.org’s Wayback Machine will remind you that, well, way back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Amazon got its start selling books online. I personally used Amazon’s half.com to purchase many of my text books for college, saving thousands on otherwise overpriced engineering and science texts.

Recently, I purchased a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success” from a reputable Amazon seller. The book arrived in the described condition (Very Good). What surprised me about this particular tome, however, was the clear barcode still on the back of the book indicating the book came from the Columbus Metropolitan Library.

I know libraries regularly sell off excess copies of books that are no longer being checked out. (Shelf space is at a premium in many libraries.) This particular book is — as previously mentioned — in very good shape. When I purchase used books, particularly those from old library stock, I expect them to be well used, often marked with a “discard” stamp of some kind.

A quick internet search revealed that a number of individuals have been prosecuted in recent years for stealing books and selling them online. Most notably, a 28-years old male from Kinross in Perthshire was arrested last year for stealing more than 7,000 books from three universities in Edinburgh. A Los Angeles woman was arrested in 2012 for stealing 2,000 books to sell online. A library system in Pennsylvania also reported having more than $6,000 in books “go missing” from a single library.

A post from the American Library Association reports that most libraries don’t engaged in regular inventories due to complexities. In a 1998 book titled Managing Overdues, Patsy J. Hansel suggests that the number of books “lost” annually by libraries in the United States could number in the millions. Millions!

Let’s suppose the average book costs around $18 (accounting for paperback vs. hard cover). Ms. Hansel estimates the number at more than 6 million books. With the largest libraries in the nation housing more than 100 million volumes by themselves, and the number of libraries in the country exceeding 125,000, it’s possible to see how Ms. Hansel’s number could be accurate even though it seems unbelievable. If that number holds, the value of those lost books is more than $100 million.

Let’s now suppose you are part of a nefarious ring that steals library books to sell on the internet. Many used books in “Very Good” condition, are sold for around $4.00. Often, you pay shipping. Let’s suppose that 50% of the time the seller pays for shipping. That puts profits at basically $3.00 per book (since it was obtained using the five-finger discount). Thus, the nefarious organization now has a handsome $18 million in profit to split among the thieves and the ring organizers.

So, is this a big problem that needs to be addressed in society: tighter security in libraries?

For my part, I don’t frequent libraries that often. I prefer to purchase my books. However, my tax dollars help purchase library books. In a sense, I own a miniscule percentage of the books in circulation today. So, the last thing I want to do is pay more money to someone else for a book I’ve already purchased with my tax dollars.

Thanks for reading! I think I’ll go to the library today.

Married to my best friend. Father to five exuberant children. Fledgling entrepreneur. Writer. Software developer. Inventory management expert.

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