We don’t want to throw your books away for you

Last week, I had to turn down a donation. Donations can be wonderful. They can help us fill in gaps in our library collections or replace damaged books. This, unfortunately, isn’t what we usually see off-loaded at the library’s font desk. In this case, the donor was trying to hand off encyclopedias from the 1950s and ’60s, because “someone might find them interesting.”

Then I tweeted about it. Then it got favorited and retweeted by a bunch of other librarians.

Unwanted donations are a common complaint. Years ago, when I worked for a small public library, I arrived at work to find three or four black plastic yard bags filled with moldy, cobwebby volumes of a Braille bible. Not only did our little library not have shelf room for these, but they were unusable in their condition. And we didn’t collect books in Braille anyway. We ended up throwing them away.

There are shelves in the backroom at my current academic library that are filled with donations from alumni and retiring faculty and students clearing their shelves before graduation. These are the ones we can use. The ones we can’t use are sent to the campus surplus depot: books that are obsolete, books that are outside our collection scope, books that are in bad condition, books that are illegal copies. We are, essentially, throwing them away because their original owners couldn’t bring themselves to do it.

In some ways, being a librarian or library worker can desensitize you to what books can represent. People have memories about their books. They want to pass them on. Then we have to be the ones to say, “No, I’m sorry. No one is going to want your copy of Twilight because we have a bijillion of them.” Sure, some of the old books might be useful for historical purposes. I can see that. “But, sir, we don’t collect old computer science textbooks from the 1980s.” I can’t blame them. (Much.) I feel bad when I have to turn people down or tell them what will probably happen to those copies of Readers Digest Condensed editions.

“But the book is still good!”

It could be worse. At least I’ve never had to deal with the fallout of a mass weeding project like other libraries have done (Fairfax County, VA; Emporia State University Library, KS; Albany Library, CA; Urbana Free Library, IL). It’s better to tell someone no up front than having to deal with the outrage when someone finds their donations in the dumpster behind the library.

While searching for articles about library weeding projects and public outcry, I found Julie Goldberg’s blog post, “I Can’t Believe You’re Throwing Out Books!” Goldberg’s post is most extensive and goes a lot further with this topic than I did here and is a very good read about what happens to books that libraries don’t want.

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