What is book swapping?

Book swaps are very simple. Shelves are established in stations, and commuters can use them to pick up books they would like to read and drop off books that they want to give away.  This sort of scheme builds on already successful ones such as Bookcrossing and local pub and hostel swap schemes.

How does it work?

Commuters can return books to the book swaps, are encouraged to do so, but don’t have to. Most swaps can have up to 100 books.

Book swapping can also be encouraged by social media. Locals set up hashtags on Twitter to report that new books have been added or if they need more volumes. In a London wide scheme, this could facilitate movement of books between overstocked book swaps to once in need of more books. Facebook pages devoted to local book swaps can also serve a similar purpose.

How are book swaps set up and stocked, and who runs them?

Otherwise, books and shelves can be obtained from Freecycle by community organisations and other sources at no cost. Collecting and storing books require a small amount of space away from the book swap, but no more than one shelf, which should be fairly straightforward for even a very small community organisation.

As book swaps grow in popularity, people commuting through will bring more volumes and the need for re-stocking will decline over time.

Book swaps would be run on an ongoing basis by community groups, with  one or two locals responsible for collecting; keeping and re-stocking their local book swap on a regular basis. While we hope some books will get returned for other travelers to read these community groups would also keep an eye out and stock up as and when needed. It’s ultimately up to specific groups to run these book swap schemes; some will thrive, and others may not.

How do I set up a book swap in my local station?

Setting up and running a station book swap is easy both for individuals and community groups:

  1. To begin with, all you need to do is have a quick chat with your local tube/train station manager and ask them if they’re happy to have a book swap put in to their station.
  2. Once you’ve got their permission you can either a) contact us to get some of our spare books, or b) advertise on your local Freecycle for people’s spare books. You’ll also need to source a small bookshelf from Freecycle too (they’re very easy to find).
  3. Then, once you’ve set up the shelf, you can get people who you’ve spoken to on Freecycle to leave their spare books on your new shelf, or you can collect them from local people on foot or by car. This will take you a couple of hours over a week or a weekend (why not ask a friend for help?) once you’ve set up your book swap. You might even want to keep some of the spare books at home in a box to top up the book swap every so often.
  4. You’ve probably set up a book swap in your local station, so every time you go through, have a look and see how full it is. If it’s looking empty, put out a call on your or your community organisation’s Twitter account to ask locals if they can put some books on the next time they go by your station. It helps to have a Twitter hashtag for your swap as well.

Why hasn’t book swapping taken over London already, all on its own?

Book swapping is fairly new in London by all accounts. The Wimbledon scheme has only been operation for the past two years at the most. The schemes are run by specific organisations who may have little inter-borough contact or interest in promoting their schemes further afield. They also may lack the resources to support more book swaps outside of their local area.  Also, there has been no London wide initiative to get book swaps across London.

Isn’t this just giving away free books?

We prefer to think of it as redistributing. The majority of the time, the books are second hand books that other people no longer want. This means that these books are back in circulation rather than languishing unread on bookshelves for years. Book swaps are a chance for these books to find new homes and enrich the minds of more people.

Won’t it compete with libraries and second hand book stores?

No. Libraries offer specific books and the ability to reserve from massive stocks. Book swaps offer a variety of titles but don’t offer the choice in the same way. Second hand books stores are not wanting for stocks of books; they have many thousands more books than book swaps would have. Additionally, book charities such as Oxfam promote social responsibility and sustainability – book swaps could partner with these organizations.

What about cheap books – won’t if be flooded with Da Vinci codes and old travel guides?

These types of novels are ideally suited to commutes – our experience with existing book swaps suggests that they will certainly be read – they are often the first to go!

Won’t some book swaps have too many books, whilst others have none?

Commutes in London span the city, from all points to all points. Yes, some book swaps may end up too full, while others are nearly empty. The system (with encouragement from Twitter) can be self regulating, with those who go from one station with many books to one with few being encouraged to take them. There is possibly scope for an I-Phone app here, or integration with Chromaroma and similar initiatives.

Won’t bookshelves get in the way in already overcrowded stations, and cause nuisance/hazard/clutter?

With nearly 18 months of operation in West Ealing Station, there have been zero complaints with regards to the book swap, and there have been no similar complaints in Wimbledon as far as we are aware. What we have found is that the station attendants do take an interest in the book swaps and on do, from time to time, make sure that books are stacked neatly.

We recognise that there are some stations particularly in high traffic zone 1 interchanges where station space constraints (or whatever) make a book swap impractical, and envision working with TFL and National Rail station managers to determine what is possible.

Won’t people just steal the books and sell/keep them?

The books are free so short of people taking many books at a time, which the social surveillance in the station would prevent them from doing, it is not possible to ‘steal’ the books. There is nothing to stop people selling or keeping the books if they wish. However, we have not heard of anyone selling books from the current schemes. Many people do keep the books they pick up but these people tend to replace these with books of their own meaning that the titles available on the swap is always changing. We know from anecdotal evidence from those using the book swaps that people who pick up books from the swap often return with several of their own books to donate.


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