Last September, MU medical student Sabrina Adams came upon a book in a local restaurant.
“It was sitting on top of the restroom toilet in Flat Branch (Pub & Brewery),” she recalled. “I thought it was a lost book and walked out, but I wondered what it was and why it was there.”
So Adams went back to the restroom, picked up the book and opened it. On the inside cover, a message said the book was “traveling the world” with the goal that others might find it. That was how Adams came to join more than 100,000 “BookCrossers” who are sharing their books in an unusual way.
BookCrossing refers to the act of releasing books “into the wild.” It consists of three steps — read, register and release. To share a favorite book, bookcrossers first register at www.bookcrossing.com to get a BookCrossing ID — or BCID — which is used to tag or label the book. After leaving the BCID and a brief message on the inside cover, the owner leaves — or releases — the book at a random location.
The person who picks up the book is encouraged to leave a journal entry at the Web site, referencing the BCID, so others can track the location of the book. Since January, Adams has released 15 books to the wild, leaving them at MU, in hospitals and even on a toilet.
“Leaving my books for a random stranger was a weird idea at first because I’m pretty much attached to my books,” Adams said. “But it’s really fun to see the next journal entry of somebody who picks up my book.”
BookCrossing began in March 2001, when Ron Hornbaker, president of a Kansas City software company Humankind Systems, conceived the idea from similar projects, such as www.phototag.org, which releases disposable cameras that are passed along to random people. The last person sends the camera to Phototag, which posts the photos on the Internet.
According to its Web site, BookCrossing has more than 200,000 members in more than 150 countries. More than 3,000 Missourians are registered as BookCrossing members, with about 130 of them in Columbia — the fourth biggest membership in the state.
Jen Guyer, a BookCrossing member from St. Charles, said she often leaves books where other people might look for something to read, such as a waiting room or where people stand in line.
“I have left several animal-related books at a local pet adoption center, and I like to pick books for special release like leaving movie-themed books in movie rental stores or theaters, or hockey books at the ice rink,” she said. “One of my book’s missions is to make it to the town it was set in and be released in one of the places mentioned in the book.”
Last April, Guyer released a book called “Dragon’s Son,” a story about the legend of King Arthur. The book traveled around the United States, landing in Maryland, Minnesota and New Mexico. It also spent time overseas in Britain, where the story is set, as well as New Zealand, Australia and Brazil. The book is now being read by another BookCrossing member in Tallahassee, Fla.
What made the book’s long adventure possible was Bookring, a group of BookCrossing members who agree to pass a selected title along to the next member on the list.
“I also have a book trying to get to the Alexandria Library in Egypt this way,” Guyer said.
Not all the books registered at BookCrossing.com travel the world. According to the Web site, 20 percent to 25 percent of the released books are “caught” by people who leave a journal entry on the site. Paul Linus of Columbia, a BookCrossing member since 2002, said placing books randomly for the benefit of strangers is something of a risk.
“If there are people who feel really enthusiastic about getting their books into the world, just beware of not getting a lot of feedback because not everybody gets on the Web when they find books,” he said. “Most people just pick up the books and say ‘oh, free books,’ and that’s it. They don’t do anything else.”
Local members say that BookCrossing is still a relatively unknown phenomenon but that as people learn about it, more books will be released. For Michael Ferro, an MU entomology major who releases books once or twice a month, BookCrossing has been a routine part of his life. He prefers to release books at places such as zoos, college campuses and libraries, where people he thinks might become BookCrossing members gather.
“It’s still in infancy stage, so we’re kind of lone agents now,” Ferro said. “But it always feels so good to share my favorite books with strangers. It’s like making the whole world a big public library.”
That people might be sharing books instead of buying them has led to discussions of legal and ethical issues among members. But many members said finding and releasing books doesn’t stop them from buying good books.
“I know it could be a controversial issue, but actually I’m buying more books because of BookCrossing,” Ferro said. “I collect my own books, and when I read a good book, I buy another copy in used bookstores to set it free. So I actually buy more books since I started this.”
Peter Davis, an MU professor who teaches copyright law, said he doubts there is any copyright infringement involved. “A book purchaser can dispose of the book in any way he chooses, and abandoning the book or lending it to somebody is permitted under the first-sale doctrine, as is giving it to someone,” he said.
In fact, BookCrossing can benefit writers who want their books to be read and remembered. Veda Boyd Jones, a Missouri writer and president of the Missouri Writers’ Guild, is happy that some of her more than 30 books have landed in the hands of BookCrossing members.
“I’m delighted three books are out there in the wild, waiting to be picked up by strangers and read.” she said. “It’s much better that they be shared than sit on a shelf somewhere and be forgotten after someone read them.”