27 Jun 2016

The Joys of a Book Exchange Shelf

Guest post by Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh, UCD Library
Browsing the book exchange shelf
Three years ago, in April 2013, a book exchange shelf appeared outside the James Joyce Library, UCD, as part of a cooperative scheme with Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown Libraries.¹ It’s already become a cherished institution in the life of the library, and has convinced me that every library should have a book exchange shelf.

What is a book exchange shelf. Put simply, it’s a shelf which holds books for exchange. You bring a book and you leave a book.

Of course, that’s seldom how it actually works. Sometimes scrupulous students will come to the desk, asking if they need to have a book on hand, to replace the book they fancy. I reassure them that we are not so literal-minded, that the requirement to leave a book is more open-ended. Most people seem to understand this intuitively.

Despite that, the shelf seems to have a steady supply of new material, and not only bulk donations from the library. Part of its excitement (yes, excitement) is the fact that anything can turn up there, from an issue of the Yeats Journal of Korea (there really is such a thing, and it really did turn up) to the works of Barbara Taylor Bradford.²

Books of all sorts on the book exchange shelf

Indeed, it’s not only books that turn up. DVDs and CDs regularly appear, and sometimes more miscellaneous items. Once a giraffe made of glass beads turned up on top of it. I took a fancy to the thing, and brought it up to my office. My office-mate, who was not a fan of the style, told me that, as soon as he saw it on the book exchange shelf, he knew that I was going to acquire it. We had some animated debates on the merit of folk art (or faux folk art). Eventually I came round to his point of view and it made its way back out to the shelf.
Books of every kind on the book exchange shelf
One of the things I like most about the book exchange shelf is its acknowledgement of books as objects of pleasure and recreation. There is something ever-so-slightly chilling in the formal atmosphere of a library. Put a shelf-mark on a book, give it a barcode and a catalogue record, and it has instantly become serious business—in an academic library, anyway. There is a sense of relaxation in the mere sight of books that have no ‘higher’ purpose, and no assigned place on a shelf!

As well as this, there is something of a social element to a book exchange. Immediately outside the library is a popular meeting point (a little bit too popular, given the noise implications) and very often one will see somebody who is waiting for somebody else browsing the book exchange shelf. When their friend arrives, there is often a conversation about the book they were browsing, or the books on display in general. Sometimes complete strangers will even pass a remark on the contents of the shelf, while one is browsing it.

In the world of romantic comedies, of course, it would be the ideal locale for soulmates to encounter each other for the first time, perhaps reaching for the same book of poetry simultaneously. As we all know, such things don’t happen in real life. But it’s not impossible…

On the subject of chance encounters, I’ve had plenty of these through the book exchange shelf. I’ve made the acquaintance of many books which otherwise would never have come into my life. Teen horror novels are the prime example. They are not the sort of book I would buy, or even seek out for myself. But when they appear on a shelf, just there for the taking, why be backward?

The World Book, an ornament to any bookshelf
Of course, the book exchange shelf caters for more aspirational reading, too. I once transferred twenty-nine volumes of the World Book 1981 from the book exchange shelf to my office shelf. A few months later they made the return journey. I understand now why door-to-door encyclopaedia salesmen were a comic convention for so long. Those gilt-edged, lavishly illustrated volumes are hard to resist.

My experiences as a donor have been as interesting as my experiences as a beneficiary. I left a copy of a trilogy by Arthur Halley (a mega-selling author some thirty years ago) on the shelf.³  It remained there for literally months. Another time, I left some books about my own favourite author, G.K. Chesterton. (You can have too much of a good thing.) I was pleased that they disappeared overnight.

Tomorrow morning, who knows what jewel might be awaiting? Oh, the joys of a book exchange shelf!

¹ UCD Library Website, 10 April 2013
² The Yeats Journal of Korea website
³  Dennis Barker,  “Arthur Hailey” (obituary), The Guardian, 27 November 2004


  1. Yes it is great! Currently working through one of the standard texts on the history of wood engraving, by Albert Garrett, which somebody contributed last week.

  2. One of my favourite things about UCD Library! :)