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The art of bookkeeping: Tracking what comes and goes at a little library in Fernwood

John Threlfall has been keeping close tabs on the 661 books that have come and gone from the little free library he set up in Fernwood in April. That has led to some interesting discoveries.
John Threlfall at his little library, outside his home on Fernwood Avenue. August 2020. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

John Threlfall has been keeping close tabs on the 661 books that have come and gone from the little free library he set up in Fernwood in April. That has led to some interesting discoveries.

For example, the most surprising book dropped off was a Russian chiropractic manual in Cyrillic script. It’s also the only book that hasn’t been picked up by someone — but that’s only because it didn’t get a chance. It was shredded one night, with the pieces left in Threlfall’s backyard.

“I guess somebody didn’t like the Russian chiropractic manual,” he said.

When he set up the Fernwood Re-Public Library, Threlfall said knew he wanted to compile statistics about which books came and went.

“What kind of books get placed in little free libraries? Who puts them there? From where? How often? Which authors? Questions were many; the answers lay in our library,” he wrote in an online post for the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network.

Threlfall said he assumed it was going to be mostly romance novels, thrillers and “crappy books that nobody wants to read” in the library, which operates on the principle of “leave a book, take a book.”

He was surprised by the quality, variety and the age of the books dropped off, including original publications from the 1920s and 1930s as well as reprints of classic novels, like Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

“I don’t think we have yet to receive a romance novel at all,” he said. “And seeing what comes through is pretty fantastic.”

For four months, Threlfall has tracked the comings and goings each morning and evening from the repurposed bedside table. He logs the title, author, genre, dates in and out, whether the public or his family places the book and whether it’s a paperback or hard cover.

Threlfall has also logged some non-book items that have shown up in the library, including a drill bit set, two loaves of bread, three VHS tapes, four squirt guns, five street maps, a pair of prescription glasses and a single Christmas ornament.

He thought the VHS tapes especially would take a while to move, but a 1980 Bruce Lee film called Fist of Fear, Touch of Death, was gone within two days.

“How many people even have a VHS player anymore?”

Some books are only in the library for a matter of minutes, taken almost as soon as he places them. His family has left 266 books and the public has left 395.

In 15 weeks, he’s found fiction outweighs nonfiction (535 to 126), paperbacks exceed hardcovers (520 to 141), and works by women trump those by men (430 to 204).

Mystery books have been most popular, followed by children’s books, literary fiction, thrillers, historical fiction and young adult novels.

A couple of authors, Camilla Lackberg and Ian Rankin, have appeared at least ten times.

A biography of hockey player and coach Pat Quinn spent the longest stint in the library, waiting 32 days to be checked out.

Threlfall, a writer and former journalist, created a diverse summer reading list for himself out of books he found in the library, which inspired him to branch out of his usual non-fiction choices.

As a self-described “word nerd” with a house full of books, Threlfall said having people deliver books to the library just outside his home is fabulous and tracking the details has been a fun social experiment.

“It’s just been a source of constant amusement and fascination,” he said.

The Greater Victoria Placemaking Network has created a map identifying the locations of the more than 300 little free libraries in Greater Victoria.