we asked Andy Horton, Manager of BPP University’s Waterloo campus library to share his Masters research and practical experience of book donations.
In 2004 I submitted my thesis for my librarianship Masters. My subject was the thrilling-sounding Altruistic book distribution schemes in law libraries. At that time, I was working in the Inns of Court School of Law. The swift publication schedule of legal encyclopaedias, and the insistence on current materials, led to a high turnover of stock and regular mountains of expensive recently-withdrawn books which were unusable by us but potentially valuable to others.
These characteristics of legal materials were in many ways those of many libraries’ withdrawn stock, writ large. Withdrawn stock valuable to specialist recipients, and which libraries could not store while they find and arrange recipients, went unused and was often thrown out.
At the time, we explored and used the options available to us. Personal connections with staff and former students helped. One lawyer returned regularly from his practice in Sierra Leone to fill a backpack with books for that country’s law schools. A tutor used his connections in the Guyanese business community to ship large quantities of books to Guyana’s courts and law schools. Not all partnerships were successful. Book Aid International existed then, and still does, to distribute books and promote literacy worldwide, but they were understandably highly selective in what donations they would accept (in fact they now distribute only selected brand-new titles). Sometimes it proved difficult to synchronise the withdrawal of donatable stock with the availability of individuals or charitable groups to collect them, and storage for anything but the shortest term was impracticable.
I made case studies of our and other libraries, and various altruistic book distribution schemes, whether ad hoc or more formal partnerships. I discovered common issues. Timing can be a problem, with no recipients ready to accept stock at the point of withdrawal. Not all recipients have the resources to be as reliable as libraries would wish regarding collection of donations. Recipient organizations have a right, indeed a responsibility, to be selective regarding what they take, leaving stock unclaimed. Simple economic practicalities – who takes on the cost and effort of storage, collection and transportation – can cause pressure on partnerships. Finding and contacting potential recipients and building effective working partnerships has a cost in staff time and effort.
In my conclusions, I identified a role for a recipient organization with an altruistic intent which was able to work at scale and across a range of libraries. It would need robust logistics and the flexibility to collect donations quickly as libraries usually cannot keep withdrawn stock in storage. Such an organization would need to be self-sustaining, which would probably necessitate a commercial element.
An organization with the potential to fulfil this role already existed. In 2002, Better World Books had been founded in the United States, originally by a group of former University of Notre Dame students selling their old textbooks online. It expanded within the US and in 2010 it began to operate in the United Kingdom. It has the stated goal of promoting literacy alongside its commercial growth and it funds literacy programmes from revenue generated by online book sales. It currently donates a book through non-profit organizations for each book it sells online. In 2019 it was acquired by its not-for-profit partner Better World Libraries.
Much of what it achieves is possible due to the market opportunity its founders first identified – the retail value online of textbooks and other specialist works. This has a synergy with libraries wishing to donate withdrawn stock. Better World Books collect withdrawn stock promptly via courier and at no cost to the library, and will sell all that they can, recycling the rest. The donating library has the choice of receiving a portion of the sales income or of donating this share to one of the charitable initiatives they support.
In my last two posts, we have worked with Better World Books. There is a compromise in that our books are being sold commercially and not donated directly to targeted recipients. However, all our withdrawn stock is accepted and any unsaleable copies are recycled so at least avoid landfill and we know that our old books are at least finding their way into the hands of those who have a use for them. My previous library saw a small return on our donations, while in my current role I waived this to support the initiative’s social benefit. The process is simple, efficient and easily integrated into our acquisitions workflow. They will even supply cardboard boxes as required, which our information assistants consider no small advantage.
Over twenty years seeking to make altruistic use of old books with varying degrees of success, I have found that partnership with Better World Books has removed the barriers I identified in my dissertation. It may not be a perfect solution, but it is – as its name suggests – better.