(I wrote the following essay in 2007, about a year after joining Wikipedia. It still rings true.)
The Really-Free Library
Many years ago in a large city in the northeast USA, a man named John (Jonbi) Scotland opened a new "free library". This library differed from other public and community libraries in several important ways.
- It required no registration to use its books, although registration was optional. Registered readers wore name tags to identify them, but sometimes some readers would forget their tags.
- The library building itself had no locks, though it did have doors to keep out the elements.
- The library had no paid librarians.
- Instead, every reader was considered a volunteer "librarian". They were to warn each disruptive reader at least 3 times to "shhhhhsh" before reporting them to "adlibs". This also applied to readers
- There was a small group of "administrative librarians" (called "adlibs") that would help "police" the library. These ablibs could ask disruptive visitors to leave, though the disruptive readers could come back in if they changed clothes.
- There was no time limit whatsoever on borrowing books, and readers could borrow as many books as they wanted at a time.
- Readers could also donate books to the library.
- There was one room in the library for special books which did have a lock, which was only open to registered readers. Registered readers could nominate books for protection, but only adlibs could place books in need of protection in the locked room.
For a while, everyone was happy with the new library. Then, things began to take unexpected turns.
Books would turn up missing, with no record of who borrowed them. The adlibs sent out notices to the registered readers (the only ones they had addresses for), but most registered readers were fairly prompt about returning borrowed books. In addition, many books, almost all of which had been borrowed by unregistered readers, were returned in bad conditions. Some were missing covers, or large chunks of pages (called "book blanking", a term which these readers sometimes wrote on the book's remaining front page).
At other times, unregistered readers would walk up and down the isles, and write words in the books with large black markers. Most of these readers were not very intelligent, and so found themselves limited to writing such simple words and phrases as "poop", "penis" and "kATie mCAwLipH is h0t".
Many registered readers attempted to report these "vandals", as they were encouraged to do by the library's "guidelines". However, they had to witness the vandal vandalizing at least four times within 24 hours, and have spoken to the person asking them them to desist after each witnessed occurrence. Even then, adlibs were hesitant to expel vandals, as they did not want to discourage other unregistered readers from visiting the library. Adlibs were even known to harass registered readers who attempted to report vandals, encouraging them not to "bite the new readers", but in actuality protecting the vandals, rather than the books being vandalized.
Even when vandalized books were placed in the locked room for protection by adlibs, other adlibs would promptly place them back on the main shelves, saying that these books should ba available to everyone.
The library was close to several large schools, and this presented even more problems. Each of these schools required school uniforms for their students. Thus the students causing problems resembled other students who were just in the library to read or borrow books. Because of this, adlibs were hesitant to speak to these students, as they could not tell one student apart from the other. The schools were not much help either, often complaining if one of their students was caught vandalizing, saying it brought shame on the school, and so the vandalism should just be ignored!
The library soon gained a reputation among its registered readers for having some very good books, many of whom spent much time and effort finding books to donate. However, its reputation among the outside world was considerably less golden. The library became known for its trashy, unreliable books. Many registered readers would encourage non-members of the library to come and check out some books. However, after finding several trashy or vandalized books, most of these non-members would never return.
Many registered users, fed up with the policies of the library, began going to other libraries where registration was required to borrow books, and where there were time limits on borrowing books. In fact, good libraries today follow this model.
After several years, the library was forced to close, as it no longer had any books that people wanted to read. Each time a good book was donated, it was borrowed, and never returned.
It is said that when Jonbi Scotland died a few years later, he still did not understand why his vision of the "really-free library" had failed.