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The karma of virtual libraries

By Christine Boese
CNN Headline News
Members of follow the "3 Rs of BookCrossing: Read, Register, and Release."

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(CNN) -- Do books want to be free?

Folks at think so, and they might have stumbled onto a way to turn the world into a virtual lending library, something that would have made Benjamin Franklin, proponent of the first public library in the United States -- which opened in 1731 -- very happy.

The Open Source software movement popularizes the notion that "information wants to be free," but Franklin originated the idea of a public library where ideas could be accessible to anyone, not just people with the means to buy books.

A counter to the pay-as-you-go world

Enter, a free service that bills itself as the "karma of literature." People join as they would a book club: reading books, writing reviews and having discussions online. But this is a book club with a twist.

To go along with the idea that books and ideas belong to everyone, members follow the "3 Rs of BookCrossing: Read, Register and Release." They use a numbering system to record and track their books, and then they "release them into the wild."

BookCrossers can leave books marked with a BookCrossing registration label anywhere (stickers often admonish, "Don't sell this book!") Coffee shops and supermarkets are obvious sites, but adventurous types also leave books at bus stops, on trains and in airports.

It turns into something of a scavenger hunt. On the Web site, BookCrossers post where they have dropped off each book. On the site you can search by book, by drop location or by member, or choose the browse feature "go hunting."

This is where karma comes in. It is a cross between "if you love something, set it free," and "cast your bread upon the waters."

Or, as Mary Hobbie, a BookCrosser from Atlanta, Georgia, put it, "The thrill of someone finding one of your 'released' books is the biggest deal ... I just like to know someone has found one of my books ... and then watch them release it and follow where the book goes."

Kids are BookCrossers, too. One 8-year-old uses the site to store book reports and also shares his books on playgrounds and other places kids will find them. Teachers write of using the site to read and release children's books, as well.

Politics and community

BookCrossing is a political act for Sandra Krecioch, who says the main value of the site for her is "becoming exposed to books that are not part of the big hype being pushed by large publishers." She likes finding books by smaller authors who have a hard time getting recognition.

The Internet facilitates the community, and though that might exclude those who can't get online, anyone, with or without Internet access, may find books that have been released into "the wild."

BookCrosser Theresa Levy writes about the book trading that goes on with people who backpack or sail around the world, stopping at Internet cafes to log on during their travels. She plans to send a batch of registered books on her sister's next trip.

The idea, if it catches on, could turn the world into a library without walls, a virtual lending library with an online catalog. Will it catch on?

BookCrosser Maryanne Stahl says, "The important thing is passing on works you love. Spreading the words."

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