Steal This Book!

This month marks the 42nd anniversary of the publication of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. For Slaw readers younger than I, Abbie Hoffman was a political and social activist, a leader of the 1960s counterculture and youth revolution movements. With Jerry Rubin and others, he was a founding member of the Yippies (Youth International Party) and one of the defendants in the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial for incitement to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. (Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie were the Democratic nominees for that year’s presidential race; Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew won the election.) 

Steal This Book is essentially a handbook to the hippie zeitgeist, a guide to pursuing the counter-culture imperative of rebelling against the government and corporations. On the book’s title page, Hoffman refers to one collaborator as his “co-conspirator” and to the other as an “accessory after the fact”. Hoffman argued not only that it is not immoral to steal from a corrupt establishment, but immoral not to steal from it. So many of his followers took him at his word and stole copies of the book that many bookstores refused to carry it. The book itself is written in three sections: Survive!, Fight! and Liberate! The book was a best-seller, a fact that somewhat embarrassed Hoffman. I think he would find it as appropriate as I do that the book, though still under copyright, is freely available in several digital versions on the Web, including here.

I was too young to be a part of that exciting time in American culture and history, when the Woodstock Nation faced off against the Pig Empire. As an adolescent, I related to the hippies more for their “cool” – a combination of music, hair and clothes – than for their politics. Possibly, what I liked most about Abbie Hoffman was how his appearance on the evening news would induce fits of apoplexy in my father. Still, Hoffman and his movement were not without influence in my life and in that of my generation. At University, I boycotted grapes and marched for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. I see a social obligation both in my chosen profession as a librarian and in my work on the fringes of the law. And that’s why I find it so difficult to understand the behaviour of many law students in relation to their libraries, a behaviour which is disturbing at many levels and unacceptable at all levels. Why do students vandalize and even steal the books in their libraries?

Book theft is a problem as old as libraries themselves. In Ptolemaic Egypt, there were standing instructions to seize all books from any ship that put into port in Alexandria. If there were already copies of the books in the famed Royal Library, the books were returned. If not, the books were kept but copies were prepared and provided to the original owners. In the Middle Ages, books were often chained to the shelves to prevent their inadvertent removal or theft. One of these “chained libraries” is still: the Francis Trigge Library in Grantham, Lincolnshire. The chaining of books was probably more effective than the curse posted in the library of the monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona:

For him that stealeth a book from this library, let it change into a serpent in his hand & rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, & all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sink to dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of hell consume him forever & aye.

Book theft, whether on a small or large scale, is not just a historical problem. Just last year, the Director of Naples’s storied Girolamini Library was arrested for systematically despoiling the library he had been appointed to keep safe and trying to sell the books in the antiquarian market. In 2010, William Jacques, Britain’s most prolific book thief, dubbed “The Tome-Raider” by the British Press, was arrested and jailed a second time, this time for stealing books from the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Books are stolen for a multitude of reasons and motivations. Recently, an Iranian businessman and collector was arrested and charged for razoring pages out of priceless books in the Bodleian and British Libraries to replace pages missing from books in his own collection, thereby increasing their value. And then there’s the case of the notorious and unrepentant John Charles Grinley, whose bibliomanic and kleptomanic activities are chronicled in the book The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession, by Allison Hoover Bartlett (New York: Riverhead Press, 2009).

The reasons students mutilate and steal books from academic libraries are no less varied but far less interesting. In the days before photocopiers, students in all libraries would rip out the occasional article or law report to spare themselves the effort of taking notes or copying out passages to quote. When I was an undergraduate, we often didn’t have the money for photocopying, so the temptation was there. But this cannot serve as an excuse for such vandalism today, when almost all articles and cases are available in digital formats. Passages can be readily cut and pasted and entire articles or cases easily downloaded, and there’s no need to pay for copying anything.

Perhaps the rationale for such vandalism today is a different form of copying; namely, plagiarism. Not all failings of academic integrity are conscious and many students are unaware that they are plagiarizing a text, but the internet and the preponderance of digital text make it increasingly easy and tempting to do. At the same time, Google and online text-matching software such as Turnitin make it equally easy for instructors to identify instances of plagiarism. Regardless, students continue tear pages or entire articles out of books, or even steal or hide books in an effort to prevent a plagiarism from being identified.

As effective as stealing a book from a library is the practice of purposely misshelving it so that others can’t find it. If a student finds himself in competition with other students for the use of an essential text, he will sometimes purposely misshelve it in a spot where he – but no one else – can find it. A student who hides a book spares himself the stigma of having stolen it, but the effect for others is the same: a misshelved book is unretrievable by and essentially lost to all other readers. Such misshelvings can only be discovered when library staff have a chance to do a “shelf-read” – a check of every volume on every shelf, to ensure everything is in order and accounted for. This is a huge and time-intensive undertaking in any library, performed only infrequently if at all. Because student demand for required texts is so high, they are usually kept in a controlled “reserve” collection behind the circulation desk, with strict lending procedures and available to students only on a restricted basis, usually for a short-term loan of only a few hours.

For me, the most disturbing motive for book theft and vandalism in law libraries is the desire by a student to prevent others from accessing information that is essential or necessary to understanding a subject or completing an assignment, thus giving oneself a competitive advantage. In the highly competitive and stressful law school environment, this is too often the primary motive for vandalizing or stealing library books. It might be petty, but it’s criminal all the same. This selfish, destructive and mean behaviour is indefensible and contrary to all principles of ethical conduct. It’s certainly not a recommended behaviour for someone training to practise law. Despite his many failings and contrary to the instructions of his own book, I don’t think Abbie Hoffman would condone such conduct. For Hoffman, to steal his book was a constructive and moral political act; to steal a library book to advance oneself and disadvantage one’s classmates is a destructive and immoral one.


  1. “Whether the ways it [this book] describes to rip-off shit are legal or illegal is irrelevant. The dictionary of law is written by the bosses of order. Our moral dictionary says no heisting from each other. To steal from a brother or sister is evil. To not steal from the institutions that are the pillars of the Pig Empire is equally immoral.” Hoffman

    Hoffman was a writer who took care to write precisely and clearly. The argument that institutional law libraries (an integral and subservient part of the pillars of the Pigs) should be exempt from his dicta would probably have struck him as ludicrous, and irrational as well. And even if law libraries are located within the confines of “higher learning” they would not have been spared viz. Law faculties and law libraries being training grounds for an essential pillar. He also identifies librarians being in cahoots with other pillars by limiting the access and distribution of his work – the book. Maybe he should have titled his book: “Steal and/or Reprint This Book”.

    People are creative: when Bush Jr. (or Shrub as he was called before being called Bush 43) published his autobiography around the world people in bookshops moved his book and Blair’s (Tony B-liar) or Pastor Blair) autobiography from the biography section to the “True Crime” section.