As readers, we all have reached that inevitable point in our lives when our shelves runneth over, and there is absolutely, positively no more room for any new books. What are we going to do, stop buying books? As if! No, it’s time for a good cull to make room for more inevitable book procurement. You might sell the books you no longer want, but more likely, you’ll donate those books. While I think that donating books is the best course of action for your read-only-once-or-twice fiction and nonfiction, and I gladly stuff my local Little Free Libraries with gently used ARCs, there are some books that should never be donated.
Hear me out.
In my professional life, I’ve worked at both an independent bookstore that had, in addition to their new trade books department, a used and textbooks department that bought back textbooks and used trade books. I’ve also worked in a public library that ran a huge donated books/Little Free Libraries (LFL) program throughout our city, in addition to hosting regular used book sales in conjunction with our Friends. Both were places that saw a lot of used and unwanted books, and I learned over the years that not every used book is salable, or should be donated. Yet, people kept bringing us bag loads of books and dusty boxes. Why? Well, I think in part it’s because we’re taught that it’s sacrilege to toss out books, and we’re given the impression that books are sacred vessels of knowledge. Or perhaps more simply, I think it’s because once most people decide to offload books, they want to get rid of them as quickly as possible and it’s a lot easier to just toss the lot in a box and drop it off in one location.
But here’s the reality from someone who has been on the receiving end of a lot of your unwanted books: You need to know what kinds of books your drop-off location of choice can and will accept, and respect their guidelines. And the harsh truth is that some books are better off being placed in your recycling bin because a) they’ll just end up in a donation bin or the trash anyway, and b) you’ll waste volunteer and employee time by passing them on when you could just toss them yourself, or c) you’ll clog up your local LFLs with books that, at best, no one wants to read, and at worst, could damage more desirable books in the library.
Types of Books That Should Never Be Donated
I know that you probably paid a lot of money for your textbooks at one point in time, but I am begging you, please don’t just offload your old textbooks on any poor library or LFL. First off, if your textbook has any monetary value, you can try to resell it to the local university bookstores that will likely carry it for future classes, or resell it online. If you can’t offload it for cash, then do your research and find a place that accepts textbook donations. If you can’t find a place that accepts textbook donations, please recycle them, especially if they’re out of date. The current textbook market is very different than it was even ten years ago, with a much bigger emphasis on customizable texts that change from semester to semester and online access codes. It’s likely that it won’t be worth much, and the knowledge is sometimes so customized to a certain course or class that it’s hard to find a reader that isn’t a student in said class. But that also means that old textbooks aren’t relevant to libraries and used book sales, and most libraries have a policy of immediately recycling any old used textbooks that got dropped off at their doors without examination.
Are there always exceptions? Sure. Textbooks like Norton Anthologies of literature are more likely to have a wide appeal to lots of different readers, even those who aren’t taking a lit class. But even those have newer editions put out every so often, making old editions more obsolete. So my advice about not donating them still stands. If you think a book might have value and you simply must donate it, at the very least please ask before you just drop it off and respect the answer if it’s “no, thanks!”
Old Guides, Out of Date How-Tos, and Abridged Editions
Remember that time you bought a Windows XP for Dummies guidebook? If you no longer have use for it, then it’s probably safe to say that neither does anyone else. Any books that expand upon technology, unless brand new, are most likely to get recycled for the simple fact that they are out of date. Same goes for old travel guides, calendars, and dated reference books. “But this might have some good knowledge still!” you might say. Maybe. But unless you can pass the book on to someone who is looking for something specific within those pages, those books should be recycled rather than donated.
The same goes for abridged editions, particularly those famous hardcover Readers Digest Editions, which usually featured three or four abridged novels in a single edition. In this day and age there is just not much if any demand for abridged books, and the only use I’ve seen out of them is in bookish craft projects. If you truly think an organization or group might want them, again, please ask first. But more often than not, people will pass on them in favor of a full text.
And if this hurts your soul, please feel reassured when I tell you that librarians weed books from library collections all the time if they’re incomplete or out of date. It’s literally their job, because accurate and up to date knowledge is more important than any object made of paper and glue.
Dirty, Torn, or Molding Books
I feel like this should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: If a book is in really bad shape, please don’t donate it. Don’t donate really dirty books that have sat in your attic or garage for years. Don’t pass along moldy books — they can pose a danger to other nicer and wanted books, because mold spreads. If the spine is cracked beyond repair, if the pages are loose, if it’s water damaged, if it’s crumpled, then it’s not going to be a book that benefits anyone. As much as it pains you, recycle it or throw it away and consider it a book life well lived. If there are salvageable parts, turn it into a craft project so you feel like you put it to good use!
We do have a guide on how to repair books, and the nicest thing you could do if you want to see a book read again would be to repair it yourself before passing it along as many people won’t take the time. But if it’s beyond repair, then people won’t be picking it up in the first place.
Books With Racist or Problematic Content
I get that you might be disappointed that you spent money on something that turned out to be racist or problematic, but if a book contains anything that would actively harm anyone from a marginalized community, please don’t let that information spread. When I was working at the library, I undertook a massive weeding project in juvenile nonfiction and was horrified (but not entirely surprised) to stumble upon some really old, harmful nonfiction books about Native American communities. I weeded them, and then I discarded them rather than put them in our library used book sale because if it’s not good enough for our library, why should it be enough for someone else’s personal library or for the wider community? The same went for outdated nonfiction about LGBTQ+ communities, and a really harmful sex-ed book.
This might differ from an instance where you want to get rid of a book by an author who has been revealed to hold harmful views or have done harm to a marginalized community, but maybe their work doesn’t necessarily reflect that. To that, I can only say use your best judgement. The truth is that many readers still eagerly devour J.K. Rowling, Sherman Alexie, and James Dashner despite the fact that Rowling is anti-trans and Alexie and Dashner are known sexual predators, so it’s up to you if you’d like to donate vs. recycle their books.
A Note About Used Picture Books
Many families like to donate their much-loved picture books after kids have outgrown them, and that is, in general, great. The same rules about dirty, torn, and damaged books apply to these as well. But even if you think a book is generally in great shape, please be mindful of where you donate your kids’ books. If it’s just to a library, LFL, or used book sale, that’s usually fine. But many places have literacy programs for infants and little ones that take donations but require they be new books. That’s often for a reason — no one wants to gift a newborn baby a pre-chewed-on board book, and sometimes these books are being dropped off at hospitals or or doctors’ offices, where they need to be clean and new for health and safety reasons. As always, be aware of what types of books an organization is looking for when they’re open to donations.
A Note About ARCs
ARCs, or Advanced Review Copies, are a somewhat tricky beast. Most publishers would encourage you to recycle or discard the ARC after a book’s release, for the simple reason that the ARC is not the “final” version of the book. Many people who work in the book world hold onto ARCs long after the book comes out, for clout or for the simple fact that it was a free copy of a book you’re excited to read.
ARCs should never be placed in a library’s circulation, and they aren’t for resale. (ARCs are a promotional tool — publishers print them at their own cost and give them away for free, and authors don’t earn money from ARCs. This differs from used books, where at least the first sale of a used book benefitted the publisher and author financially.) If an ARC is in good condition and there are no glaring errors like missing pages or huge changes to the text from ARC to final printed copy (rare but it does happen) I am of the personal opinion that it’s okay to pass along ARCs to other readers. Just be aware of where they’re going. Personally, I usually hand my unwanted ARCs over to fellow readers or drop them in my local LFL rather than donate them to a library or used book sale. Here are some more ideas about what you can do with unwanted ARCs.
I’m sure that if you’re still reading this, you might be thinking, “But surely there is a reader for every book!” And hey, that might be true. But if the book you want to get rid of fits in any of the categories above, it behooves you to find that right reader and match them with your unwanted book. If you can’t do that, I gently suggest letting go of the book. I promise you that no one is going to come after you — librarians throw away books all the time and they’re still allowed to work with books. Your shelves will feel lighter with all of the books that no longer serve you gone from your life. Eventually, you won’t be able to distinguish in your memory all of the books that recycled vs. the ones you donated. And most importantly, you can make room in your home and heart for new books…until you have to repeat this whole process all over again!