Stop buying books; use Hekman instead

Until last summer, I only very rarely checked a book out of Hekman Library. For reasons I still can’t figure out, I assumed as an underclassman that Hekman wouldn’t have most or all of the books I needed to read for classes or wanted to read for pleasure. I had other strategies for acquiring reasonably-priced books (used book shops, online thrift stores, Amazon, upperclassmen friends), but the dawning realization last summer that most of the books I needed or wanted were available for free right here on campus quickly eclipsed these strategies.

While plenty of other sources can get people books cheaply and quickly, acquiring a book through Hekman (or another library) is not only easy and thrifty but also ecologically friendly and an opportunity to practice building social capital in a low-stakes environment.

Anyone can walk into Hekman on a school day and find a book on a shelf. They don’t need a car, a bus map,  a credit card or an Amazon account. If they can’t find the book you need on the shelf, they can place a hold on it —– if Hekman has it — or request it through MeLCat — if Hekman doesn’t have it. They can renew the book almost indefinitely unless someone else places a hold on it.

The production and distribution of physical books has an enormous environmental impact globally, responsible for about 14% of deforestation. It takes about two glasses of water to produce a single page of a paper book. And once a book exists, it has to make its way to readers, trailing emissions all the way. Not to mention the human impact: Paper production and printing both pollute in various ways, impacting people’s health as well as the environment.

But I love print books! So for me and many other bookish people, this poses a problem. Print books are the gold standard when it comes to reading experience, comprehension and attention.

Sharing shelves solves this little paradox. If two people buy a copy of the same book, those two copies contribute their respective amounts to environmental degradation, and thus harm humans. If someone orders the book and then shares it, the total environmental impact drops by 50%. If those two people each share with two of their other friends, they cut their total impact by more than 80%,and so on. “Sharing” by means of a library is a great way to get access to the embodied reading experience while limiting one’s negative impact on the environment and fellow people.

When someone acquires a book from a library, takes good care of it and returns it on time, that person  is also participating in relatively low-stakes social capital building, which is great preparation for higher-stakes involvement in democratic society.

Social capital is a way of describing the value of the goodwill that people in social networks have towards each other, and the norm of reciprocity that undergirds functioning societies. People build social capital by holding doors and having others hold doors  for them, by using turn signals and merging courteously and by checking books out of libraries and returning them on time. When practicing these things well, people become well equipped to build social capital in higher-stakes environments, like by engaging across partisan lines or participating in community organizing.

But even if all this social capital and environmental stuff isn’t for you, my bet is you’re interested in getting the books you want faster, simpler and for free. Try Hekman just once and see what happens.