Let’s Have a Book Drive!

Here’s the scenario:

Something has happened. A library (public or school) is destroyed or damaged, by fire, flood, wind, locust.

“I know,” says a well-meaning person. “Let’s have a book drive!”

And the books are gathered and sent to the library, so the kids have something. And the people who sent the books — whether they are ones that they owned and donated, or bought at the local bookstore just for the drive — are happy at their contribution.

I’m here to share why the well-meaning book drive is a bad idea.

What I suggest, instead, is taking those good intentions, contacting someone at the library, and asking them what they need and working with them to meet that need. Here’s one prediction: yes, there is a need. But the need is better met by doing something fund raising (having a book sale with all those donations) and sending the library money. Or, they may create a wish list with a vendor so that people can select particular items that are needed.

Generosity is a wonderful, appreciated thing. But in the event of a disasters, what matters is not what someone wants to send, but what the community wants and needs. Community and library involvement in that planned charity must be considered from step one. Ideally, charity is for the benefit of the recipient, not for the giver. What does the library want? How will they manage the donations?

If a library and it’s community is in a time of crisis, the last thing they need is a ton of books left at their doorstep.

Why? Here’s my list of what the library will need to do with your donations. All these things involve money and staff time, money and time that is now being taken away from other things. Also, planning for such things, which cycles back to staff time.

Storage. If the building is destroyed, there is no place for those books to go. Storage has to be obtained, which costs money. Especially when how something is stored matters. For books, for example, temperature and humidity matter to prevent mold.

Sorting. The donations have to be sorted, which takes time. Even if this is delegated to volunteers, those volunteers need some initial guidance. What to sort for? If the book is outdated. If the book is in bad condition. If the book is appropriate for the intended library. (The number of clearly adult titles that wind up in donations to a school library, for instance. Stephen King may indeed be right for that middle school; Fifty Shades, not so much.) Sorting matters, because why store something you’re not going to be able to use?

Disposal. Those books in poor condition, or that aren’t a fit for the library, have to go somewhere.

Processing. Let’s keep in mind, at this point, that if the library is gone, it means all the materials used to process books are also gone. Unless some type of cloud storage was being used, that includes any OPAC records and databases.

Here is what has to be done for each donated book that will be added to the library collection. Whether paperback or hardcover, a book jacket for the protection of the book — so it last longer — needs to be added. The book needs to be stamped with the name of the library. Spine labels need to be added, which actually requires cataloging. So the book now has to be cataloged, and if the old records are lost, that is original cataloging for each book instead of just adjusting the number of copies owned. And, a barcode has to be added.

Here’s a library secret: many libraries purchase books with all this already done. The book is ordered already processed, it’s taken out of the box, barcode scanned; the catalog records are uploaded to the OPAC. It’s usually not that big a cost, and a huge savings in time and materials for the librarian.

Collection Development. Restoring and recreating a library isn’t an easy process. Fiction, non-fiction, reference, all have to be considered. The right mix includes things that are popular, things that are literary, various genres, entertainment and information. It’s about all the people who will be using the collection, and must reflect the community (both the local community and the broader world.) There are ways to make it easier, especially starting from scratch. What may make it harder? Working around donations which may be heavily slanted towards new popular titles, with many duplicates of some books and none of others.

I am NOT saying that, when one hears about a library that has lost it’s collection, to do nothing.

I am saying: reach out to the library and LISTEN. They will know what the library needs, rather than what you want to give. They will also know what is needed short-term versus long-term; and what insurance will (and won’t) cover.

So, here’s my questions for you!

Have I left any steps out of what happens with unsolicited donated books?

What suggestions do you have for people who want to help?


3 thoughts on “Let’s Have a Book Drive!

  1. This is excellent, Liz! The perennial library problem: Trying to seem grateful when someone burdens you with donations! This explains nicely how you can be honestly helpful instead of burdensome.


  2. Thank you for this well thought-out and informative post. So often people just don’t know what to do with their good intentions, but there are certainly ways to be helpful! Thanks for pointing out the potential problems with donating books to the library.


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