Strategic Defense
From A Former Prosecutor

Library theft: When borrowing turns to stealing

On Behalf of | Sep 1, 2023 | Criminal Defense

Despite the existence of things like audiobooks and e-books, actual physical books continue to be as popular as ever. One of the best ways to enjoy books is to borrow them from a library. America’s public libraries allow anyone to borrow books for free as long as readers return them on time.

However, some abuse the generosity of libraries to steal books. You might think that stealing a book from a public library hurts no one since the facility can always purchase a replacement. But California takes this crime seriously; the state prohibits library theft and punishes anyone caught stealing books.

Why do people steal from libraries?

Library theft is a national problem, but there aren’t any exact numbers on how many books are stolen across America. What’s known, however, are the most common types of materials stolen from public libraries. They include:

  • Books about the occult, witchcraft, astrology, etc.
  • Any materials on gay and lesbian issues
  • Books on sex or materials with sensual imagery
  • Materials on sensitive topics such as child abuse and abortion
  • Examination books, educational materials and textbooks

Librarians have pondered the reasons for the theft of these materials. Of course, racy images are always going to attract attention. Still, librarians have theorized that books on dark topics are often targeted by self-styled censors who want to keep such things away from the public’s hands.

They have also suggested that books on sensitive topics like abortion are popular targets because their readers are too embarrassed to bring them to the checkout for borrowing. Librarians also postulated that educational and do-it-yourself books are common targets because their readers usually use them for longer than the four-week checkout period.

But no matter the reasons for theft, California considers the offense a crime.

The penalties for library theft

If you’re convicted of library theft in California, a court will order you to pay up to $1,000 in mandatory fines and serve a maximum period of six months in county jail for a first offense. In the state, library theft can also refer to materials and equipment stolen from the library, such as videos, disks, artwork, activity kits and so on.

In addition to a fine and jail time, the library can hold you liable for damages of up to $500 and other costs, per the state’s law. Because you’re liable to the library, the facility can also pursue a lawsuit against you for the retail value of the book or equipment stolen. This may not sound like much at first, but if you’ve stolen a rare book or other expensive equipment from the library, you might suddenly be on the hook for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Library theft is a crime that comes with surprisingly heavy penalties. Regardless of your reasons for taking a book, remember that the state will not hesitate to convict you.