Monday musings on Australian literature: Bookswapping

Old books

Old books (Courtesy: OCAL @

Last week I wrote a Monday Musings about bookselling for/by charities. As I was writing it, I realised that there was another way of acquiring books that is worth writing about – book swap arrangements. Not surprisingly, it came up in comments on that post, so is clearly something of interest to many readers. It’s an area that I’m aware of – how could you not be – but not one I use with any regularity, so I’ve enjoyed researching it beyond my limited knowledge. I’m sure commenters will add even more information, for which I thank you in advance!

Book swapping as an informal activity is practised by most readers in some form or another. We share books – sometimes lending them to be returned, other times asking for the book to be passed on. It may not always be exactly one-to-one, but something more informal where we press loved books on each other as we read them. A little bit more formal is that practice in places like youth hostels where travellers leave a book behind that they’ve read, in a communal bookcase, and take one in its place. I still have a book that I picked up that way back in the 1970s. It’s Mordecai Richler’s Shovelling trouble. I love it – and the memories it carries.

In other words, book swapping as I’m describing it here is a pretty loose activity. It happens in multitudinous ways, ranging from the highly informal to the very controlled, from sharing books locally (in just a street, for example) to sharing across and between nations. Some swapping is simply about ensuring we always have something to read – what I’d call reader-to-reader sharing – while other schemes have bigger literary and social justice goals. These aims and styles aren’t always mutually exclusive, but the emphasis tends to fall more into one camp than another, if that makes sense. The activities I list here all fall into the somewhat organised end of the spectrum.


BookCrossing is the first big “organised” system that I came across – and that was back in the early 2000s when I found a book in my workplace cafe. Wikipedia describes it as “the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise.” It started in the USA but has become a huge international community, supported by a website and social media platforms.

Markus Zusah, The book thiefAustralia is 7th on the list of the world’s top 10 bookcrossing country according to the BookCrossing website, which is not bad given our size (unless that was measured per capita).   (If you are interested, the top three countries are USA, Germany, United Kingdom.) I won’t say more about this, but if you’ve never heard of it do check out their website. It’s rather fun to see the list of recently released, recently caught, most travelled and most wished for books. I loved seeing, when I checked, that the top book in “the most wished for” list was Markus Zusak’s The book thief (my review).

The Great Book Swap

Coordinated by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, the Great Book Swap is a very different kettle of fish. Its aim is to raise money for the Foundation. The idea is for organisations – workplaces, schools, any group at all – to host a book swap, which this year was on Wednesday 6 September. (But, really, you could do it any time. The ILF won’t reject your money). The principle is that people swap books for a gold coin donation. That is, participants bring a book (or books along) and for the right to take a book or book/s away, pay a gold coin donation. So, you get a book to read and the Foundation gets some money. In 2016, the ILF raised $160,000. The money is used to buy books to send to remote indigenous communities.

ILF Ambassador, children’s author Andy Griffiths, describes it thus:

The Great Book Swap is a win-win. Not only does it help raise money to improve literacy levels in remote communities, but the excitement and fun…helps improve literacy levels in your community or organisation…

The Little Big Book Swap

Another literacy focused event is the Little Big Book Swap run by The Little Big Book Club at Raising Literacy Australia. It runs along the same lines as the Great Book Swap, with money going “to support literacy programs and resources for SA families”. Raising Literacy Australia seems to be an Australia-wide organisation, with its vision being “Enriching Australian lives and building communities through literacy”, but this Little Big Book Swap, currently anyhow, says the money is for South Australian families. Hmm … maybe this is just a start of a program they plan to expand.

Street Libraries/Little Free Libraries

You’ve all heard, I’m sure, about street libraries. They are neighborhood book exchanges where passers-by can take a book to read or leave a book for others to find. The Little Free Library is one manifestation of these. It started in the USA in 2009. According to Wikipedia, there were 50,000 registered libraries world-wide. I bet there are many more that are not registered. In Australia, we have an organisation called . I love their description of what they do:

Street Libraries are a beautiful home for books, planted in your front yard. They are accessible from the street, and are an invitation to share the joys of reading with your neighbours.

Street Libraries are a window into the mind of a community; books come and go; no-one needs to check them in or out. People can simply reach in and take what interests them; when they are done, they can return them to the Street Library network, or pass them on to friends.

If anyone has a book or two that they think others would enjoy, they can just pop it into any Street Library they happen to be walking past.

They are a symbol of trust and hope – a tiny vestibule of literary happiness.

“A tiny vestibule of literary happiness”. I mean, what more could you want? You can register your library on the site, which enables others to find you. You can build your own little library, or you can buy a kit from the website. According to the website, there are 9 in my city. (I should have gone out and photographed one today, shouldn’t I?) The one closest to me is Books for the World (and it just so happens that one of my ACT-litblogger mentees is involved in it!) Another is the Mighty Fine Book Swap in Brisbane. Click on these links to see gorgeous pics, and read about them.


These are some of the “big” initiatives, but I know there are all sorts of book swap arrangements around (including the hostel ones I mentioned in my introduction). Commenter Jeanne on last week’s Monday Musings wrote that

Recently Mildura Library has started a new venture: provide a book swap at Mildura Airport: Are there any other airports that have something similar?

Are there? Anyhow, what a lovely initiative. It’s called, delightfully, Books on the Fly. Being a small regional airport, Mildura Airport does not, I’m guessing, have a bookshop in the terminal, so this provides a lovely service for air-travellers.

Do you use – or contribute to – any book swap arrangements? I’d love to hear about them, whether or not I’ve mentioned them here already. 

26 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Bookswapping

  1. At the railway station in Castlemaine (and for all I know in other stations in Victoria) there is a bookshelf stocked by the Goldfields Libraries. Travellers may freely borrow from a range of frequently replenished books, mostly novels, returning them when they are ready.

    • Thanks Carmel. Sounds like Victorian public libraries are active in this book swapping area (given the Mildura airport too). I wonder if they are the books they would otherwise have sold in library sales?

      • I don’t know how they select the books really. I might ask them. The books seem generally to be ones that could reasonably be expected to engage that person known as the ‘general reader’ on a train journey when they are tired of looking at the ups and downs of fields and hillsides and sheep and cows. Crime, romance, sci-fi – you know the kind of thing.

        • Thanks Carmel. (Could you ever tire of looking at the ups and downs of fields and hillsides and sheep and cows?) It would be interesting to know how they do it. I can imagine that what they select are those genres you mention. They must be books on their last legs in terms of library service but still appealing enough to serve a purpose.

  2. I touched on this in an early post, The Truckers’ Library ( but we also had at work, and still have an audio book exchange. One driver donated his collection of maybe 100 audio books which take up some shelves in the supervisor’s office. Like all the other drivers I read (listen to) anything that looks interesting and add to the collection if I happen to buy a book – all the roadhouses have Bolinda stands.

  3. I’ve always been a big advocate of book sharing/swapping. There was a recent Great Book Swap held at the high school I work at and it was met with enthusiasm, but not a lot of funds were raised in the end and there were quite a lot of books left over. I’ve provided books that I’ve written for little libraries before, a friend of mine in another town was setting one up, but sadly, I have yet to see one for real out here. I love the notion of a travelling book though. Some of my own (the ones I’ve written) have popped up in unexpected places. A german backpacker once tagged me on social media with a picture of my book, telling me they had loved it and had picked it up in a hostel in Alice Springs. It’s a tiny little world sometimes!

    • These are great stories Theresa, thanks.

      That issue of what to do with leftover books after events like that is a big one isn’t it. I can’t help thinking that unappealing books keep getting donated on and on until someone finally decides to consign it to recycling. But all books deserve a few chances before this happens because there are niche interests out there that they might just meet.

      As an author, you must have loved being tagged by that German backpacker. (You see quite a few Germans in the Centre we’ve found. They’re great travellers.)

      • Yes, it was quite a thrill!
        I agree with what you point out about the unappealing books. There were certainly a few of those that were donated, but there were also some that were snapped up that I thought were destined for rejection, so you never know! It always bites a bit to throw a book away though.

        • That’s readers for you isn’t it? When my aunt died I chose some books from her house that I would probably never have looked at in a normal situation, but they are real treasures – and not just because of the association.

  4. Some years ago when a close friend was living nearby, we used to dine at each other’s houses on alternate weeks, and each week we’d swap books because she was a voracious reader too. I really missed her (not just for the books!) when she did a sea change, and I look back on that time in my life with fond memories.

    • That’s a lovely story Lisa. It’s sad when traditions like that end, but end they usually do eventually, don’t they. You clearly though have lovely memories, and that’s worth a lot (as well as giving us a lovely story of a private bookswap arrangement!)

  5. I went through a phase where I labeled books with a book phantom compliments email address. If you found this book email me what you thought. I then transported them to small country Tassie towns or bus stops and left them. I must have dropped 25 books. To this day I have not receieved an email about any of them. I might do it again this summer while out on my scooter.

  6. Wayne Parry of the Goldfields Library (Bendigo, Vic) – who is by way of being a friend of a friend – was kind enough to provide me with the following:

    The concept of providing reading material for commuters is not unique to Castlemaine. It is a service provided in various formats throughout the world.

    This service was initiated in Woodend many years ago. The concept was later taken up at Castlemaine and then Kangaroo Flat. At Goldfields Library Corporation we call the service “Rolling Stock”. It provides train travellers on the Bendigo-Melbourne line with a collection of books which they can select from and take with them on the train. They are free to keep.

    There is no corporate sponsorship. The collections are replenished from books donated by commuters who appreciate this facility. Goldfields Library Corporation contributes books from donations made to the Library, and even some library deletions (retired library stock) find their way to the Rolling Stock collection.

    • Thanks very much for sussing this out Bill. So, now we know that part of the collection comprises deletions that they might once, perhaps, have sold, but it is also partly self-supporting by readers swapping books they’ve read. Lovely.

  7. Thank you for this post, Sue. It’s one of my dreams to set up a Little Free Library. Someday. 🙂 I haven’t seen any of these networks working in Chennai, India. I hope something would start soon. I have almost stopped exchanging books because I barely received my books back. And I seem to have primal instincts about my books that I so hesitate to share. 🙂

  8. Have you heard of Chasseurs des Livres? It’s this Belgian bookswap craze where people hide books, post a rough approximation of their location on the website/facebook page and then when someone finds it they post too (kind of like book geocaching). I’ve been meaning to experiment and maybe do a podcast on it!

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