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A close-up on the pages of a book.

Ever had a book on your bookshelf that you're never going to read again? Or one that you love so much that you want to share it with others? Maybe you'd just like to find a free book lying on a park bench one day, waiting for you to pick it up and take it home - if any of these apply, then BookCrossing could well be for you.

How It Started

In 2001, Ron Hornbaker and his wife noticed the popularity of websites such as PhotoTag and Where's George? which track the journeys of various items - in these examples, disposable cameras and American banknotes respectively - as different people use them. It set Ron wondering about what else people might want to track, and he hit upon the idea of some sort of system for tracking who had read a particular book. After establishing that neither the idea of tracking books, nor the name 'bookcrossing', were yet to be found on the Internet, he set about establishing his own website.

The BookCrossing site went live in April 2001, and since then thousands have joined up1 and millions of books have been registered. Articles have been written about the site in countless magazines, and it has appeared regularly on TV and radio. In 2004, the word 'bookcrossing' was even added to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary!

How Does It Work?

If you want to join up and start tracking your books, all you need to do is provide a username and password, along with a few other details2, and you're all set! Now you just need to register the books you want to track, by clicking on the 'register book' link and following the simple instructions. Remember to write the BCID3 somewhere inside the book - people generally write it inside the front cover, along with the BookCrossing web address - so that everyone knows it is a BookCrossing book and can see its identification number.

Now you can write a journal entry for the book, saying whether you liked it or not, or giving a brief synopsis of the story. The next step is to release it into the wild4, so the book can start its journey.

There has been controversy in the past over whether BookCrossing is a bad idea from the point of view of authors and publishers - surely if people are sharing books in this way then there are fewer books being bought? However, the general consensus from bookcrossers is that they actually buy more books than they did prior to BookCrossing - if they really like a book they'll buy a copy for themselves and another to release! As with libraries and second-hand book shops, BookCrossing is just another way for many people to read the same book, perhaps a book that they wouldn't have thought of reading otherwise.

Releasing Books

The main thing to remember when releasing a book is to put a Post-It note (or something similar) on the front cover of the book so that everyone knows it's there for the taking, rather than a book someone left by mistake. Plenty of examples of what to write can be found on the website, but something like 'This is a free book, it isn't lost, please pick it up and take it home!' would work well.

You then need to think about where to release the book. Anywhere will do5 - books have been released everywhere from café tables, to university lecture theatres, to holes in trees! If you don't like the idea of leaving your book to fate, however, you could always post in the forum and ask if any other bookcrosser would like to trade books with you. Either way, once the book has left your hands, all you can do is sit back and wait for the email saying someone else has 'caught' (found) it and made a journal entry of their own6. If they go on to release it, you can follow its travels all over the world.

A lot of BookCrossing books are sadly never heard from again once they've been released. But don't give up if this happens to your book, just remember that someone somewhere may be reading and enjoying it, even if they haven't come online to say so.

Release Challenges

Many bookcrossers enjoy setting release challenges for themselves and others. This means setting a certain theme, such as 'Books about Christmas', or a certain location, such as 'Parks and Gardens', or a combination of the two, for wild releases. Other criteria could be 'books that someone else registered before you' or 'one book for every letter of the alphabet'. If you decide to take part in a challenge, you should release a number of books that fit the criteria, and then let people know how the challenge went, how many of the books were caught, etc. Challenges aren't for everyone, but plenty of bookcrossers find them good fun.

Finding Books

If you find a BookCrossing book lying around somewhere, lucky you! Its former owner will be anxious to hear what has happened to it, so head on over to the BookCrossing website and enter the BCID that should be in the book somewhere. You can join up if you want, or remain an Anonymous Finder. Then you can release the book yourself, or keep it forever on your bookshelf: it's up to you!

If you want to find a BookCrossing book, you should head over to the Go Hunting section of the website, where you can follow simple instructions to allow you to receive emails every time someone releases a book in your area. You can then head off to the location the book was released in and try to find it (if someone else hasn't got there first).

Other Ways to BookCross

Releasing a book in the wild isn't the only way of letting your book travel. There are various methods of sharing your book with other bookcrossers, all of which can be organised through the BookCrossing forum:

  • Bookrays: a bookray is a single book posted from one bookcrosser to another, following an order usually set in advance but often added to along the way. The final member of the bookray is usually at liberty to do whatever they want with the book once they receive it.

  • Bookrings: a bookring is similar to a bookray, except that the final member of a bookring should send the book back to the first person in the list once they have read it. This person can then either release the book or keep it.

  • RABCKs: a RABCK - 'Random Act Of BookCrossing Kindness' - is where a bookcrosser will send a fellow bookcrosser a book without being part of a ray or ring, and without expecting anything in return. The recipient is then at liberty to do what they like with the book.

  • Trades: a trade is where two bookcrossers will agree to exchange books, which they can then either keep or release.

  • Bookboxes: a bookbox is exactly what it sounds like - a box of books. These work in a similar way to bookrings, except that each recipient should remove the books from the box that they wish to read, and replace them with other books before posting it on to the next person on the list. Many bookboxes have a theme, in which case books put into the box should fit the theme.

  • OBCZs: an OBCZ, or Official BookCrossing Zone, is usually a bookshelf or box in the corner of a café, pub, library, internet café, or a multitude of other places, where BookCrossing books can be released and caught. If there is an OBCZ near you, feel free to take a book or two (remember to journal them), and maybe leave a couple in their place. If you want to set up an OBCZ, remember to ask the manager/owner of the location first.

  • Geocaching: some bookcrossers have combined BookCrossing with geocaching.

Social Bookcrossing

BookCrossing doesn't have to be a solitary activity and many towns and cities in the UK and around the world have regular BookCrossing meets. Often held in a pub or café, they provide an opportunity for bookcrossers to get together and chat, whether about BookCrossing, or just about anything and everything, and to swap books. Some meets also include a mass release, where everyone will bring a few books and will release them around the local area. In addition to these meets, there are also various conventions around the world - such as the Birmingham Unconvention - which let bookcrossers get together en masse and enjoy themselves.

Information about all these meet-ups can be found on the BookCrossing Forum.

1BookCrossing is currently much more popular in English-speaking countries than elsewhere, but numbers worldwide are steadily growing, and there are bookcrossers in most areas of the globe.2All your details are kept completely private - it's up to you how much you reveal about yourself onsite.3BookCrossing Identification Number, the unique number which identifies each book.4Otherwise known as leaving it somewhere for someone else to find.5Although be aware of sensitive locations such as airports and train stations where a left book could cause a security alert.6Be patient - books can be gone for two years or more before being journalled by whoever caught them.

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