Courage, Creativity, Community

Book Donations – A Tough Talk

Maybe your library has a publicly posted policy against taking any book donations (or most). Maybe your library’s collection is 100% based on book donations. Libraries do fall across the spectrum, don’t they? I work in a  library where space is at a premium. We don’t say no to everything, but we say no to a lot. We have to be choosy. I take the calls (and they are usually phone calls) when people want to donate books.

Since starting work in libraries almost a decade ago, I have owned some aspect of managing book donations, and seen the reluctance with which many approach it.

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Librarian at desk and reader at bookshelves” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Allow me to acknowledge that these are not fun calls. They are often emotional calls. It can be difficult and even impossible to figure out how to be sympathetic and helpful but still say no, while also ascertaining when it’s appropriate to say yes.  I ask one question, “will you please describe the books?” listen to the caller’s answer, and whenever possible, I provide them with a decision over the phone immediately. I try to be the person who says no, if no is what is going to be said, because many times that potential donor on the phone has been connected to several people or organizations all avoiding the crux of the conversation because they don’t want to feel bad telling the donor no. It’s not a kindness to delay that information or provide an unpromising referral.

I understand the impulse to just say yes to gifts out of expediency. It’s natural to not want to let someone down or be unhelpful. We struggle especially in these cases because as library workers we fully understand how physically burdensome, emotionally laden, and logistically tricky print books can be. We’re a service-oriented profession, and wanting to help is laudable. But here’s the thing- as library workers, we have to assert the value and visibility of our labor. And when we just say yes to materials that don’t actually make sense for our collections and users, we’re devaluing our collection, spaces, and labor. We’re not actually stewarding those donated materials, either. As challenging as asserting these truths may prove, particularly in the context of these conversations, it is my job to assert it.

Not that I say “Hey, value my labor!” What I say is, “Thank you for generously thinking of us in what I know is a challenging time. We are not in a position to properly steward these books, based on your description, our collection priorities, and available spaces. Can I email you a list of recommended donation services?” It’s a great opportunity to point to nonprofits that can offer those books a meaningful second life, like Books Inside, Prison Book Program, and Better World (of course). I make it a point never to refer to libraries unless I know they are seeking donations. 

I see a big part of my often extremely visible work in collection development and management as advocating for the recognition of my colleagues’ less public efforts, The work of acquisitions, shelving, cataloguing, the mail room. All of that work has real value and real cost. When we accept a book donation, we have to mean that that work is worthwhile to be directed to the books we accept.

And it can be worthwhile. There are wonderful book donations lurking out there. And making the time to have the conversation is crucial to making sure we don’t ignore those. But I urge you not to capitulate to discomfort and the desire to please when it creates more work for yourself and others without adding truly appropriate materials to your collection. Be candid and supportive, but assert your value too. 








2 responses to “Book Donations – A Tough Talk”

  1. Pamela Rose

    The PR challenge of donations at the former Health Sciences Library at UB (now Health Sciences at Abbott Library) is met by – I am the contact for anyone with donations and explain we can accept with certain criteria. Having the International Donations Program guide as a referral helps enormously with saying “yes” in some way rather than a hard “no”. the page was first born way back in 1998 when I was working in technical services and is still helpful today. Print is not yet dead!

  2. Great resource, and print is very much alive. Thanks for sharing, Pamela!

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