Monday, July 7, 2008

Book-swapping websites, and other forms of book recycling

When I was a child my Dad would occasionally take me to the Book Exchange so he could choose a few books. But to be honest, I would usually go to the pet shop next door. It didn't occur to my Dad to choose some books for me. Occasionally, I'd sneak in for some comics, but the opportunity for me to get some children's books was a lost opportunity. The exchanges still exist in isolated places and typically allow registered customers to swap a book for a different second-hand book, or purchase one at a very low price if you are not a registered user. One might wonder why people would use a commercial book exchange when public libraries are available (more on these below), but the key difference is that the book exchange allows you to own the book and keep it for longer periods of time.

There are many good reasons for book exchanges of all types (noting that universities, hospitals, guest houses etc also use them). The most obvious is reduced cost. But there is a second good reason; they are environmentally friendly. In a recent article in the Guardian, Charlotte Northedge points to the advantages of borrowing rather than buying.

For eco-aware readers, the environmental benefits of swapping rather than buying are clear. In 2003, Greenpeace launched its book campaign, producing evidence that the UK publishing industry was inadvertently fuelling the destruction of ancient forests in Finland and Canada. It found that one Canadian spruce produces just 24 books, which means that if you get through one book every two weeks your reading habits destroy almost one large tree every year. (In the same year, Greenpeace persuaded Raincoat Books to produce the Canadian edition of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on recycled paper, saving an estimated 39,000 trees.)

In the past two years, a number of online book-swapping sites have commenced. One example is, which is a site run from California where people enter the titles of the books they want to give away on a website, and earn credit that enables them to borrow each time they swap a book.

Northedge points out that what sets sites like BookMooch apart from some others is its international scale. It has 68,930 users in 91 countries. "Since its launch in 2006, nearly 700,000 books have been swapped; The Memory Keeper's Daughter, the most exchanged - or "mooched" - book, has been swapped 755 times."

Another example is The swap process seems simple; you find a book you like, ask to swap with another ReadItSwap member. Unlike traditional book exchanges, the search for and choice of books occurs over the Internet. The number of books you can request from other users depends on the amount of positive feedback you have from other users.

I'll leave it to others to calculate the carbon produced by a web-based swapping system (I'm assuming that mailing stuff across the world has an environmental cost, as does the power that runs our computers), but there seem to be significant benefits in swapping programs of all types.

Two other environmentally friendly (and cheap!) options

a) Op Shops

Another variation on the recycling of books is the humble opportunity shop. We regularly pick over the shelves for good children's books. While they are often filled with some very average titles, you regularly pick up gems for anything from 20 to 30 cents. This is particularly useful when you're on holidays. When we are away with our grandchildren on holidays we still make an early visit to the local op shop and always return with a bundle of books that provide ongoing pleasure and stimulation well beyond any holiday. Now Carmen has a real gift for finding the great book amongst the not so great books.

If you live in Sydney or Melbourne you can even buy a book that offers a comprehensive guide to where op shops are, public transport connections etc - "The Treasure Hunter's Guide".

b) Libraries

Developed countries like Australia and the USA are blessed with wonderful public libraries that usually do more than just offer books. They often run programs for children, and also loan toys, CDs and DVDs. When my children were just toddlers we got them their first borrowing cards. One of my greatest joys was to take my two daughters to the library most Saturday mornings and to bring back piles of books. A hint - always try to make it an easy number to remember so that you can hunt them down when it's time to return them. I'd also suggest that you make (or buy) library bags for them and suggest that they keep them together. I've blogged previously on the importance of public libraries. In that post I commented on the point made by an American colleague Dr Allen Berger that libraries are also a great 'green' resource.


Louisa Claire said...

Hi Trevor,
Thanks for this post. Just wondering if you have any thoughts on the "Your Baby Can Read" program? Be interested to know what you think.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Louisa, I'm not a huge fan of "Your Baby Can Read" but I'll do a post on it to give a more detailed and balanced response. I have a couple of fundamental problems with it that relate primarily to my concern that children should not be pushed too early into formal education at the expense of other activities like play, language exploration, experiential learning etc. I also have some questions about their claims concerning long-term effects. Mind you, when you see a cute 13 month old reading flash cards, it's pretty compelling stuff. Nice to hear from you. I'll try to do a post on this before the end of the week.

Louisa Claire said...

Awesome! That would be great. I would really be interested in a more balanced review of the program. Thanks so much!!

Lobster Press said...

I didn't know about book exchanges - I have definitely learned a lot. I live in Montreal and speak English, not French, so sometimes I find it difficult to get access to children's and YA books in English. Hopefully through a book exchange I'll have more luck. It's good about Harry Potter being printed on recycled paper, considering how widely read that is. At Lobster Press, we are also looking into publishing books on recycled paper - I love books, but it's nice to know we can save some trees.

Unrelatedly, I could have used that advice about keeping my books together in one bag when younger...not only did I get too much, but I was always scrambling around at the last minute!