So you want to send books to your library…

So you’ve got a local library — standalone, school, prison, women’s shelter, whatever — and you want to help them out. That’s awesome, because most libraries are radically underfunded and they really struggle to keep their collections current, expand, meet changing needs among their clientele, and keep themselves open. However, before you run to the bookstore to pick up a selection of your favourites, or peruse your shelves for things to donate, think again.

One of the biggest problems charitable organisations experience, time and time again, is in-kind donations. It’s probably highly likely that your library really wishes you would just give them cash, although they’re too polite to say so. Here’s why.

  • Libraries can access bulk discounts on books, which means that a dollar will go a lot further if a librarian controls it. That $26 hardcover you bought is obtainable at a much lower price point for a library, so why not just give them the $26?
  • Libraries aren’t actually hand-me-down storage facilities. Librarians have advanced degrees for a reason:  Curating a library is very hard work and it requires an extremely specialised skillset. When librarians add books to their collections, they think about issues like the demographics of their clientele, which kinds of books are being checked out on the regular, which kinds of books people are asking for, and so forth. Librarians spend painstaking time managing their collections, including both acquisitions and culls, and donated books might not necessarily be useful.
  • You are probably not the first person to donate an old copy of Harry Potter, Twilight, or some other bestseller that did wildly well and is now gathering dust on shelves across the U.S. Libraries absolutely need, and stock, bestsellers, but interest tends to fall off rapidly. It’s probable that they bought 10 copies (or whatever) of Number One Bestseller back when it came out, and they don’t need more — in fact, they’ve probably culled and reduced the number because there’s less interest in them.
  • Library books go through the wringer. They’re handled by hundreds or even thousands of people in all kinds of conditions, and they need to be durable. That’s why librarians often specifically seek out library binding editions, which you likely don’t have, or, at the very least, hardcovers (which you likely do, to be fair!). Paperbacks can be a bit of a disaster.
  • Donated books eat a lot of staff time. When a box or bag of books hits the deck, someone has to sort through it, figure out which books can and should be added to the collection, and get them entered into the library’s system. Meanwhile, the books that aren’t usable have to go somewhere, which may be storage for a future book sale, or a donation to a charity shop — either way, it takes library resources to get it where it needs to go.

With cash, a librarian can use a purchasing discount to select precisely the right books for a library, in the best possible bindings. That cash is going to go way further than donated books ever will, just like cash is infinitely superior to in-kind donations during disasters and other incidents. Sure, it can feel impersonal and a little cold, but believe me, cold hard cash is exactly what the doctor ordered in the vast majority of cases.

So what about the minority? There may be cases in which a library explicitly puts out a call for books. It’s usually in association with a friends of the library book sale, in which it sells off culled and donated books to raise funds. Some organisations like women’s shelters, or individuals like teachers looking for help in the classroom, may have wishlists at a local bookstore, inviting members of the public to pick up books they’d love to have. Some bookstores actually offer a special discount on books bought for this purpose as part of their own charitable work.

Okay, but you don’t have cash and you really want to help the library out because libraries are great and you want to make yours as wonderful as it can possibly be. Does that mean you get a pass on book donation? No, it does not. (Unless your library is asking for books, or they say that they’d love some books when you ask them if they’re accepting donations!)

Instead, consider volunteering. Lots of libraries rely heavily on volunteers for all kinds of things, including tutoring, assistance with shelving, people willing to lead story time and other events for kids, people interested in offering classes and workshops, workers for book sales, people enthusiastic about history and genealogy for the local history room, and more. Some libraries are also interested in volunteer staffers to work behind the desk, do data entry, and help patrons. Your time can be extremely valuable for a library that’s short on resources, and you likely have a skill that would be useful for the staff.

Not everyone has budget in their schedule for volunteer time, but if you do, it will be much appreciated — you can typically volunteer as much or as little as you please after receiving an orientation (and in some cases you may need to get a background check, as for example if you’re working with children). Volunteering may also give you an excuse to get out and about, meet people, and identify other areas in your community that could use a little help. And if you don’t have the resources to volunteer, going to the library as a patron matters too: It’s what the library is there for, and libraries use patron numbers and activity to get funding and support.

Image: Stockholm’s Stadsbibliotek, dilettantiquity, Flickr