A Show of Trust?

The copy of Promises to Keep: Technology, Law, and the Future of Entertainment I have in my hands features two prominent coffee stains, one large torn spot from the book spine, and dog-ears on multiple pages. The book is a library-owned copy, and it has obviously seen some use and ab-use.  The use is wonderful — a book is a terrible thing to see waste away on the shelves — and for this use, some abuse is acceptable.

How much? This is not really a question that has a meaningful answer. (Sorry for that.) For if the answer is anything other “unlimited”, then at the set limit, the library must have some way to signal to the user that he has exceeded the “wear and tear” associated with acceptable use. But this simply isn’t the case. No library (that I know of) routinely checks the conditions of returned books and so no library has information on which to issue reprimands to discourage behavior that it deems unacceptable.

So libraries work on an honors system. They have few mechanisms in place to penalize users’ unwanted behavior and even fewer resources to devote to monitoring such behavior. After all, what libraries can afford the time and labor costs needed to build an airtight case that it was a particular patron who damaged a book? What libraries can convincingly counter arguments like “the book was like that when I checked it out” or “it must’ve gotten damaged in the book drop”? What libraries want to risk their patrons’ good-will by making accusations that they cannot sustain?

Hence, libraries trust, but by necessity, do not verify. In the presence of the constraints that invariably lead to lax enforcement of whatever policies put in place, it’s arguable whether such laxness reflects trust or simply an honest assessment of what can be done. Moreover, even if it is the latter, libraries may still apply the wrapper of “trust” around their procedures since such PR is a cheap tool to encourage book care. The principle of reciprocity is something both used car salesmen and libraries know well.

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