What Are the Rules for Lending Your Books to Friends?

We asked librarians, since they’re the experts

I have a master’s degree in literature and I live in New York City, which means two things: I have a lot of books, and not a lot of anything else. So when people come over to my apartment and don’t want to talk to each other, they’re forced to marvel at my bookshelves, which are both my only art and my largest pieces of furniture.

After a couple of glasses of wine, I inevitably begin handing out my books like party favors. I always think I will get them back. But then I never get them back. And if I do, the pages are ripped, the cover clinging by one stitch, or there’s a hard, crusty peak of some unidentifiable food item (I hope) trapped on page 47.

I want to feel blithe about these borrowing faux pas. Books are just things, after all. But instead I start to sweat and fidget when someone walks into the room who has one of my books held hostage. And to come clean: I’ve also got some books that are not my own taking up loads of guilty space on the shelves. Should I flagellate myself for my oversights? Should I cut ties with friends who leave chocolate thumbprints on my dust jackets? What, in short, are the RULES here?

I decided to reach out to some librarians, the experts on book borrowing, to find out what their personal policies are on sharing their own treasured property. In honor of National Library Week, here are the words of wisdom from six librarians on the do’s and don’ts of swapping books.

Do librarians lend from their personal collections?

“In general, I rarely lend my personal books out anymore, for a few reasons:

  • I tend to forget who has what.
  • I don’t give people deadlines, and the conversation is always the same (“Hey, did you read Stiff yet?” ‘No! It’s on my list!’), month after month. If I do give a deadline — usually a month or two — the borrower tends to give it back immediately and say ‘I can’t promise anything, so you keep it.’”
  • People lose things.

That last one accounts for 97% of my book-stinginess now; the last few books I lent out did not return to me, and pleas to their borrowers were always met with a blank stare and a refrain of ‘Preeeeetty sure I gave that back to you.’ And I’m always torn about it, because there are books that I just NEED people to read, but I also don’t want to lose my entire library.”—Erica Smith, cataloger in Maryland

There is honestly almost no greater joy in my life than when somebody tells me that they loved a book I recommended, or that I lent or recommended the right book at the right time.

“I do love lending books! It is one of my favorite things. I love it. There are very few books I won’t lend out, and I tend to buy extras of my favorites when I see them at Goodwill or a used bookstore, specifically so that I always have them on hand to lend. My partner, who is an academic, finds my habit of lending books willy-nilly incredibly annoying, since it sometimes spills over into me enthusiastically lending hers as well. There is honestly almost no greater joy in my life than when somebody tells me that they loved a book I recommended, or that I lent or recommended the right book at the right time. I have no idea how many of my personal books have vanished from my lending habits, but it’s like a little hug (even right now thinking about it) to remember when various people came back to me to talk about a book I recommended them, especially if they loved it or if it opened a door for them.”—Claire Scott, children’s librarian in Seattle, Washington

“Since I became a librarian, most of my friends are now also librarians. As a result, I cannot even remember the last time I lent out a book of mine. If I want a book, I usually check it out from the library or get it through interlibrary loan. I rarely buy books anymore, and, as a result, few people ask me to borrow books from me.”—Brian Flota, humanities librarian at James Madison University

“I’ll lend anything out to anyone I like or trust to return it to me. I’ll also give away books on a store-to-own plan when I need space but am not ready to give something up. I guess I won’t lend something if I’m actively using it for my current project or if I BOTH don’t like the person and don’t trust them. Also if it’s really inconvenient.”—James Ascher, former Assistant Professor in U.C. Boulder Libraries, current doctoral student at University of Virginia

“Lending a book creates an obligation between friends and is fraught with potential arguments, from timing to condition of return. So much of my job is spent dealing with late and damaged books that I have no interest in making that a part of my off-the-clock life as well. That doesn’t mean that I don’t hand books to friends. I do. I just don’t expect to get them back.”—Tyler Wolfe, librarian from Baltimore County, Maryland

“My policy is fairly simple, in most cases — if I lend a book to you, I probably don’t expect to see it again. (There’s a very small group of people to whom I will lend books that I want back.) I don’t have a lot of regard for the book as physical object, and 90% of the books that I read get lent out, given away, donated, or returned to the library. I also live in an apartment in Brooklyn and don’t have the space for every book that passes through my life. I’d rather keep an extensive collection of books that I haven’t read yet and a small collection of books that I may want to revisit someday, and that takes up all the space I have. ‘Lending’ books out helps me keep my book situation under control.”—Jessica Harwick, YA librarian in Brooklyn, New York

Rules and regulations

“My own ‘rules’ about damage are similar to library rules: if you damage a book to the point where it’s no longer readable by another human being, you should replace it, if doing so isn’t a financial hardship. If you spill something on it, at least try to clean it off. And for Pete’s sake, come to me about it! If you damage my book, I’ll probably be annoyed, but I’ll get over it; I know you didn’t do it on purpose.” — Erica Smith

My policy is fairly simple, in most cases — if I lend a book to you, I probably don’t expect to see it again.

“If the book is special to me, I give them a very earnest speech about how special it is and why, and tell them that I definitely want it back eventually. I guess this implies that normally my joy in them reading the book is greater than my joy in getting it back? Whatever, it works out fine.” — Claire Scott

“As somebody who successfully completed a Ph.D. in English earlier in my life, many of my books are extensively marked up. Some of them even have taped spines. (I know, my library friends will shudder at the heresy of my actions.) As a result, if any of those books get lent out, I don’t really mind if more marginalia fills their pages. If the book is brand spanking new, I will ask for a little restraint from whomever I lend it out to so that it stays relatively pristine. If it is one of those old paperback editions of a classic printed on very acidic paper and the spine is starting to break, I will ask who I lend it out to to similarly be very careful about it. The due date seems pretty consistent: about four to six months if I really want it back. Most of my friends lead busy lives, especially those with children, and expecting it back within a public library’s due date policy just seems cruel.” — Brian Flota

Most of my friends lead busy lives, especially those with children, and expecting it back within a public library’s due date policy just seems cruel.

“If I think a book is too delicate for the person who wants to borrow it, I’ll probably show them how I’d handle it before they borrow it. If I don’t think that they’d be capable of not destroying the book — maybe they’re going on a sea voyage or live in a tent in the woods — then I’d have to like them enough to accept that I might never get the item back. Mostly, I want people who borrow my books to try to fix them if they break them — signs of readership are interesting to me.

I usually specify a vague timeframe for the book, but I’m grateful for distributed storage, so don’t force anyone to return something if I still know how to get in touch with them.

I write on the front free endpaper ‘James P. Ascher, his book, lent to BLAH BLAH April 2018’ to which I add ‘returned May 2018’ and might have a second, or third, lending there. I really only lend out books to people who would — at worst — forget to return them so writing on them is enough.”— James Ascher

“Even if I only have one copy, I’d usually rather give it away than loan it. There are so many books in the world and I’m confident that I’ll be able to get another copy when the urge to reread it strikes me. And if I never want to reread it, then what’s the use of having it on my shelf anyway? I know the books that I love, the books that I am most likely to recommend, so when I see a copy for a bargain price, at a used book store or a flea market or something, I’ll buy it. At any given time, I have 2–3 worn-out paperback copies of my favorite books on hand and ready to give away. A lot of this is a luxury, obviously. Thanks to my job, I’m surrounded by books and often can find them for cheap. I can afford to buy them and give them away. But even when I’m not comfortable giving a book away (I do have a few that hold particular sentimental or monetary value), I’d rather send someone to the library! Our whole business model is lending books at no cost.” — Tyler Wolfe

At any given time, I have 2–3 worn-out paperback copies of my favorite books on hand and ready to give away.

“Annotate away! Drink wine and be merry! Take it to the beach! Keep it until I forgot that I lent it to you! My only rule is don’t judge me for my own wine spills or annotations or sand/salt from the beach. If you can live with the evidence that I read and loved a book, I can live with yours.” — Jessica Harwick

On what being a librarian has taught them about the way people treat borrowed books

“Most library customers love books, respect books, and want other people to have access to books. Some, though, just don’t give a tinker’s damn. Here is a combination of pet peeves, nightmare stories, and my observation of/opinions on the way people treat borrowed books:

I’ve gotten books back with mold or — on three memorable occasions — live roaches in them. Or that are smeared with candy and Kool-Aid. Or that smell so strongly of gasoline that we can’t keep them in the building and have to exile them to the parking lot. Or that have clearly been kept in the wrong part of a diaper bag. Nonfiction books come with paragraphs highlighted and notes in the margins (in pen). Photography books have pictures cut out. History books are scrawled with racial slurs.

I’ve gotten books back with mold or — on three memorable occasions — live roaches in them. Or that are smeared with candy and Kool-Aid.

In my first year working in the Circulation department, a customer returned a huge pile of books and stood there waiting for me to check them in. I saw that their pages were all warped and the writing was smeared. I picked one up and immediately put it down again.

‘Sir,’ I said, ‘these are wet.’

‘They were like that when I checked them out,’ he responded.

A brief glance at my computer screen. ‘These were checked out three weeks ago.’

‘Yep,’ he said.

‘All of these books were wet — soaking wet — three weeks ago? All of them? From different sections of the library?’


By this point, a colleague had drifted over. ‘We have to charge you for these.’

The man smirked at me. ‘They were like that when I checked them out.’

I was a little desperate at this point. ‘But we wouldn’t have checked them out like this.’

The smirk became even more punchable. ‘You did. Someone did. Anyway, you can just dry them out and put them on the shelf again.’

I’ve had that exact conversation — about wet books, about defaced books, about books that have clearly been half-eaten by a dog — more times than I can count.” — Erica Smith

“Most of the patron book condition issues that I encounter are really more about access and circumstances, not willful damage. Often kids’ books will come back super beat up (especially books that have been hanging out in backpacks) but, you know, the kids are seven or ten, it’s amazing books come back at all. I mean, look at how many jackets end up in random corners of the playground after recess! A lot of book damage of adult books is things like damp or dirty pages, or cigarette odor — and those things are often due to the fact that lots of avid readers of print books are insecurely housed and it’s ridiculously hard to keep everything clean and dry and in perfect condition when you’re living out. Considering the sheer volume of library books read by my library patrons experiencing homelessness, it’s honestly incredible how little damage the books get under those circumstances and what good care patrons take of them. Cigarette smoke is a bummer, because there’s nothing you can do but discard that book… but again, nobody wants everything they own to smell like cigarette smoke. It’s not that common anymore, and mostly those books are coming back from folks who are homebound or isolated seniors in small living spaces.” — Claire Scott

“Most people treat books with care. But when you see so many books being checked out and returned, there are definitely some instances where something has gone horribly wrong. Water damage, dog and cat bites, pest bites, food stains, and incredibly destructive (and highly uninformative) marginalia are some of the worst things I’ve seen. But those instances are few and far between.” — Brian Flota

People seem to have more respect for books that they borrow from people they know than they do for library books.

“People seem to have more respect for books that they borrow from people they know than they do for library books. Something about the communal experience of borrowing makes people feel as if they don’t have to be careful with the books. While I don’t care how long people keep my books, I am surprised at how long people will keep books without reading them. If I borrow a book from someone, I usually read it right away. If someone has gone to the trouble of recommending a book to me (or if I’ve sought it out), then I want to read it sooner rather than later.” — Jessica Harwick

The Golden Rule

“Non-librarians are often more worried about a book’s condition than librarians are! We know that things get beat up and that there are plenty more out there.

Know your lender. Be just a smidge more careful than they are.

If you don’t want to read it, just say eh, I don’t think that sounds like what I want right now. We won’t mind! Don’t take the book and then let it gather dust and have the looming anxiety of not having read it build while your eager librarian friend checks in over and over to see what you thought! Because one day, years later, she’ll come to your house and find it hidden in your bookshelf and ask — with a tentative, heartbreaking hopefulness — if you’ve had a chance to try it yet. And you’ll have to mumble no, things got busy, but you’re going to read it soon. And her heart will sink and she’ll know that she did not, in fact, match the right reader with the right book at the right time, and worst of all, you didn’t tell her so she can’t make a better recommendation next time. Honesty is the backbone of every relationship, readers, including your relationship with your book-pushing friends.”— Claire Scott

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