So you’ve been doing some cleaning, and you have a stack of books to purge so you can make room for all the shiny new books in your life. There’s no better home for your gently loved books than your public library. But where do your books go after you donate them?
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look into the life of a book after it goes into the library donation box. Every library is a little different, of course, but this will give you an idea of what the journey might be like. Here we go!
After you drop off your donation, a janitor, security guard, or whoever’s in charge of facilities loads all the books onto a dolly and wheels them away. Donation boxes can fill up quickly, especially if there have been a few large donations in a row, so the boxes sometimes have to be emptied several times a day. The janitor wheels the books to a sorting area in an out-of-the-way area — like the library basement or garage — which is a book-lover’s dream: stacked with piles and piles and PILES of used books.
Once the books have been transferred, they need to be sorted. This is where library volunteers come in. Most public libraries are supported by volunteer groups called the Friends of the Library that are made up of lifelong library lovers, usually silver-haired retirees.
The Friends of the Library volunteers go to work after the books hit the sorting area. Each volunteer is trained to be responsible for a designated subject area, and the room they work in is lined with bookshelves labeled by subject. There’s even a shelf for rare books and first editions. The room has a fun and informal vibe, with volunteers coming and going at all hours to chip away at new donations, snack on hard candy, and chit chat with each other about books, family, and life. (At my hometown library, I’ve even seen Friends of the Library volunteers meet and fall in love!!)
Once the new donations have made their way to the right shelves, the subject-area experts start evaluating the books one-by-one. Like-new books with recent publication dates are set aside for the librarians to go through and see if they’re needed for the library’s permanent collection. Other books in good condition are priced for a Friends of the Library book sale, and books in poor condition are put in the recycling pile.
With such a huge volume of donated books, Friends of the Library groups have awesome box collections…but they’ll know if library staff sneak off with them for moving or storage! Liquor boxes and banana boxes are actually really popular because they’re the perfect size — they’re sturdy, and not so big that they’ll get too heavy when they’re full of books. There’s nothing better than a liquor box full of library books.
When the volunteers are done pricing, the books have to be stored until it’s time for the next big book sale. Some libraries are lucky to have large staging areas like obsolete garages that can store a whole lot of books. Other Friends of the Library groups have to dip into their coffers to pay for off-site storage. Still other libraries have spaces for small used book stores that are open year-round and staffed by volunteers, with the pricier books getting listed on Amazon.
Then it’s finally time for the books to be sold. Most libraries offer one or two giant used book sales each year, held anywhere from rented tents and church basements to city courthouses and county fairgrounds. Some libraries also throw in smaller seasonal sales for romances, mysteries, or kids’ books. The book sales are huge, festive, complicated affairs, and every single Friends of the Library volunteer pitches in. They help put up tents, set up tables, move boxes, place announcements in the local paper, run the credit card readers, you name it. This is a great opportunity for outside volunteer groups like students, scouts, and church groups to volunteer, too.
After everything is set up, it’s almost time for the book sale to go public…but first the Friends of the Library might offer a “Friends Only” night. Anyone who’s paid a small membership fee ($5-10) gets first dibs, including library superfans, Little Free Library proprietors, and used book dealers who sell books locally or online. It’s worth the cost of entry for dealers to get first crack at the good deals and buy in bulk, although this practice is controversial. Memberships can be bought at the door.
When the sale finally goes public, the crowds line up down the street and book-lovers get their game face on to elbow competitors out of their way. Books fly off the shelves and tables. And after the frenzied first few days of the sale, the remaining books are sold by the paper bagful at a discounted price.
So what happens to the books that don’t sell? Along with the books that were rejected in the sorting area, the remaining books are transferred to a vendor for recycling. And, hopefully, they will eventually be transformed into beautiful book art.
Friends of the Library book sales can generate upwards of tens of thousands of dollars in revenue. After the Friends of the Library have paid for storage, tents, equipment rentals, vendors, and any other expenses, the rest of the funds go to support the library. The Friends of the Library group in my hometown donates around $50,000 to the public library each year to pay for children’s summer reading prizes, visiting authors, makerspace equipment, new library books, and more.
So next time you donate your gently used books to the public library, just imagine them on their journey of janitors, hard candy, liquor boxes, fairgrounds, paper bags, and lovestruck volunteers. Imagine it, and know you might just be putting a new book into a kid’s hands when she finishes her summer reading challenge.
Then pat yourself on the back, and go buy yourself some new books.