Library Socialism 101

Foundational principles


The freedom of individuals in a community to appropriate resources merely by virtue of the fact that they are using them. ^1

Usufruct is the key to library socialism - and how it can radically change the nature of a capitalist society into one that works for the people of that society instead of just a few.

Unlike the myth of capitalism, which claims to compensate workers for their labor fully, the actual nature of capitalism is that ownership by the capitalist class of tools, the means of production, and sufficient resources to keep workers alive while they create goods and services allows them to steal part of the worker's labor and claim it as their property (see surplus value).

Library socialism instead offers another means of distributing goods, both capital and consumer. It provides a way to make us all much more affluent on average, distributing goods and services to where they solve the most needs, not just to where they generate the most profits for a few. And by sharing items, it means that fewer items can satisfy the wants of a society completely.

plain terms

In the simplest terms, the right of usufruct means you can use things, but you cannot deny them to others when you're not using them, and you do not have the right to destroy them to prevent others from using them. So, for example, the farmer is welcome to grow crops on a given plot of land - but if they choose not to, somebody else can use the land.

Given this, it's easy to see that this principle already exists in public libraries. You can borrow a book to help you start a business, but you can't prevent others from reading it after you - or threaten to destroy the book unless you receive the profits of the next reader's business. You can hold the book exclusively (of other library patrons), but only temporarily.


Library socialism removes the right of abusus, Latin for abuse. Abusus is the right to destroy or deny property to others. It is also the property right that is necessary to exploit labor.

Take the simplest example of a farm employing labor. The farmer cannot work so much land themselves, which is why they seek to hire labor, to begin with, expecting that the profit of that labor will be greater than the cost of paying for it. But, assuming the laborer is not currently starving, why would they not simply use the unused land and grow food for themselves, keeping the amount they would have to pay to the farmer?

The laborer would like to but can not because the farmer has the legal right of abusus. So not only can they use the land, but they are legally empowered to deny its use to others and even to destroy it if they wish to. They can then use this to create an artificial scarcity and use that scarcity to extract value and concessions from the laborer.

Irreducible Minimum

The irreducible minimum means that we guarantee everyone a standard of living, regardless of who they are, what work they do (or don't do), or any other consideration for as long as they live in our society.

There are some similarities between the irreducible minimum and a Universal Basic Income - but instead of universal inputs, we aim for universal outcomes. ^2 So instead of providing a check for $2000 a month (much of which will be captured immediately by landlords), we instead say that every member of the society should be able to sleep indoors, in a private room, etc.

By doing so, we don't just strengthen existing hierarchies by providing those at the bottom with "just enough" comfort to keep working, but instead, we remove the threat of scarcity that forces people into the capitalist wage labor system.

This may sound idealistic, but note that while some specific numbers are not flexible (the number of calories a human needs, etc.), for many others, we can start with low levels and increase this minimum as the overall wealth of the library society increases.

Note also that, unlike some other socialist systems, the irreducible minimum does not prohibit people who want to work to gain more for themselves. But since it does ensure people cannot coerce others by starvation and homelessness, it does require that they provide valuable labor to society to do so.

the malthusian objection

A typical argument against any long-term society that guarantees the needs of its members without condition is that it will lead to a massive increase in birth rates, quickly ensuring that per-capita resources cannot increase. This argument is also known as Malthusianiism.

However, almost all observed societies since the Industrial Revolution have shown instead that this is not how humans behave. High birth rates are associated solely with agricultural societies (which were the ones Malthus described initially). As societies industrialize, birth rates fall.

Related to this is a claim that, absent the coercion of starvation or homelessness, humans will not work. For an in-depth exploration of this, we will defer to the book Bullshit Jobs by Graber ^2.

consumable items

This area often raises one of the most common objections to library socialism - namely, what about items that borrowers don't typically return? What about food?

Many current movements seek to escape this through a foundation as a gift economy. This is not incompatible with library socialism - a gift, after all, is simply a loan that never expires. A loan is preferable since it requires that the item is not put into the capitalist system when the recipient no longer wants it but, instead, that the recipient of the thing returns it for use by others if it is no longer wanted.

In most current societies, there are more than enough calories produced to support every person - the issue is instead with the distribution.

Another way to see this is that people return even consumables in an ecological sense. As said by the SRSLY Wrong hosts in response to a heckler, the only way to avoid returning food in a library society is to refuse to compost or flush your waste and store it in jars. As most people would prefer NOT to hoard their feces, seeing food as borrowed becomes more natural.


Complementarity is an idea that differences in a non-hierarchical organization can be generative, instead of competitive for destruction ^3.

As an example, within a library, imagine ebooks where highlights can be shared (like today's Kindle offers), margin notes can be shared, commented on, comments responded to by others, etc. The original author's work is continuously enhanced and added to (complemented) by the actions of the borrowers, who move beyond the simple passive consumers of the capitalist system.



By sharing the collective wealth of society more effectively between members of that society, library socialism reduces the number of redundant goods needed to provide a highly affluent life. Moreover, doing more with less also helps to reduce the ecological footprint of that affluence. We get more done with less, and as such, we do less damage to the ecosystem and planet while doing so.



Library socialism can offer a system that provides excellent efficiencies, unlike capitalism which claims to do so but often spends massive resources making things LESS useful to protect property rights of abusus. One example in today's libraries is Digital Rights Management for ebooks. Apps such as Libby are unwieldy to use because the supply is artificially limited, and they must spend massive amounts of engineering on preventing the retention of a book. Instead, greater plenty is possible by removing property rights, namely that of copyright, while the Irreducible Minimum solves the issue of how creators can be supported. Of course, the community can give producers further rewards - but there is no reason to artificially limit the supply of creative works to force a price.

Summing Up

Library socialism, then, is when we take the library model of distribution and the principles of usufruct, the irreducible minimum, and complementarity, and run our society and economy based on these ideas.