A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Getting the Most From Donations

by Tom Cooper on May 9, 2013

In a recent informal survey, I asked librarians whether they considered donations of materials to their library a blessing or a curse—or somewhere in between. Not surprisingly, the responses were all over the map. Many praised donations as an  unalloyed blessing, often despite the fact that they are a lot of work. Many gave them actual percentage rankings, ranging from 92 percent blessing to only 10 percent. Some told stories of unexpected gems discovered deep within dusty boxes, while others related horror stories of bug-ridden, mold-covered sets of ancient encyclopedias and Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Despite this wide disparity of response, several consistent themes emerged.

First, donations would be a lot more beneficial if donors better understood what kind of donations are useful in libraries. Too  often they believe that we will find value in five decades’ worth of National Geographic or complete runs of old computer magazines. Some librarians impute cynical motives to these donors: they can’t find any place else to discard their old books or they only want a tax deduction—while other librarians believe that most donors are good-hearted but misguided.

Second, it was generally agreed that being able to sell donated items greatly increases their value to a library. Whether it’s on a sale table in the library, at a Friends of the Library annual book sale, or on eBay or Amazon, the revenue generated by selling donated items can be used to enhance library programs and collections.

Third, many librarians noted that having an active Friends group, or some other solid core of volunteer labor, greatly helps. Pre-sorting, discarding what is obviously too old or damaged to add to collections or try to sell, and conducting sales are all functions that volunteers can do. This saves valuable staff time and decreases the “curse” part of the equation.

And finally, most librarians noted that it is largely the process that makes donations a problem. All the work involved in receiving, storing, sorting, discarding, and recycling can be a heavy burden on overworked or insufficient staffs. Librarians who cherish the idea of donations may lose sight of the fact that it is not cost effective if it takes ten staff hours to find six good books. Even where there is volunteer labor, the smoother we can make the process, the better for everyone involved. By streamlining and systematizing, we can take more of the curse out of the equation, and see more of the blessing.

Start with a Policy

We’ve all experienced the nightmare of a patron strolling happily up to the circulation desk and announcing that he’s got twelve boxes of magazines to donate—who can help me unload them? There are several mistaken assumptions here, the first being that libraries keep archives of old magazines. Increasingly our magazine resources are online, and some libraries no longer store any past issues of most magazines, only retaining current issues in their public browsing area. The second implied assumption is that we’re not very good at what we do; that, for instance, we greatly desire to have every copy of American Heritage running back to the 1960s, but haven’t been able to achieve that goal and we need someone from the community to help us out. And finally there’s the somewhat odd assumption that we have strapping lads lazing around in a back room somewhere awaiting the chance to unload SUVs full of donations.

These assumptions, and many others, could be clarified with a written policy. A complete gift policy will cover more than donated items like books, magazines, and AV materials. It needs to address things like donations of money, artwork, or anything else
that people may want to give their public library. But for day-to-day donations of materials, your donation policy should address four key points:

  1. What kinds of donations you do and do not accept.
  2. What you will do with the donations.
  3. When and how you can receive them.
  4. How you will acknowledge them.

The first part of the policy is the most important; it’s the ten-second speech that every staff member who answers the phones or works at a public service desk should have memorized. It is the quick answer to “Do you accept donations?”

“Yes, we accept donations of recent materials in good condition. We don’t accept textbooks, old magazines, or encyclopedias.” Various libraries add other specifics to this blurb, based on what have been problems for them, such as videocassettes, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, or National Geographic magazines. Since you cannot reasonably have staff spelling out every undesirable item in response to a telephone query, you need to decide the most important categories of verboten items and write your policy statement that way.

Many libraries prepare a list of area book sales, and refer would-be donors to them. This is probably only a fair thing to do if you’re referring all donations to them, not just the things you don’t want. But people will ask, so it’s best (given the business we’re in) to have an answer ready.

Another point that public service staff should be able to recite verbatim is what you will do with the donations. This part of the policy should make it crystal clear that donations (a) are accepted without condition, (b) become the property of the library and are not returnable, and (c) will be used as the library sees fit. Donors cannot insist that their donations be added to the collection; nor can they show up a month after making the donation and ask for their items back because you didn’t add them to your catalog. You want people to know right up front that while all donations are considered for the collection, some—perhaps most of them—will be sold, or whatever your disposition is for such items.

Once in a while, a patron will offer a donation of a pristine copy of a heavily requested current bestseller, and ask whether it will be added. Such situations call for a reasonable amount of empowerment of your desk staff. They should be able to say with some confidence that it will be added to the collection. But these situations need to be understood by everyone involved as rare exceptions.

The third part of the policy can sound the most brutal, but it touches one of the hardest realities. Think about when or if there’s a good time for you to receive donations, if there’s someone on staff who can help unload them, and advise patrons to bring them at that time. There can even be instances where a policy might state, “Please bring no more donations than you can unload.” It does not sound nice, but if there’s nobody on staff who can haul around heavy boxes of books and magazines, the donor should understand that. The last thing you need are work-related injuries incurred while unloading stuff that may not be of value.

Always decline to pick up donated materials. This is unsafe, time-consuming, and expensive. Occasionally donors insist that they have valuable items the library must have. A few questions will usually establish that the valuable collection consists of pretty much the same kind of things people bring in all the time. If the would-be donor is insistent, ask for a comprehensive list of what the donation includes. Simply asking for a list usually puts an end to the discussion. In situations where the donor actually produces a list, you should review it carefully before making a decision. If you perceive that the donor really needs to have the items picked up, this may be the ideal time to suggest other nonprofit organizations that hold book sales and offer pick-up service.

The final section of the policy should deal with what kind of written acknowledgment donors will receive. While the majority of donors decline any acknowledgment, many appreciate a written thank you, and many want something on file for tax purposes. A donation to a public library is tax deductible.

The dollar value of the donation is something the donor must decide. IRS Publication 1771 notes that an acknowledgment of the donation should contain the “description (but not the value) of non-cash contribution.” 1 The donor is responsible for establishing the fair market value for donated items. You may want to recommend online sources such as Alibris getting the most from donations and Amazon, where the value of used books is easy to find, and IRS Publication 561.2

Your acknowledgment should contain the library’s name and a description of what was received, but resist any request by donors to enumerate exactly what was received. Most people are happy with a simple “thank you for your donation of twelve hardcover books” but I have encountered the occasional person who asked for a complete author/title list. This is way too expensive in staff time.

A complete donations policy would read something like this:

The library accepts donations of recent books, recorded books, CDs, and DVDs. Donations should be clean and in good condition. We do not accept donations of old news magazines, textbooks, or encyclopedias.

All donations are accepted without condition, and immediately become the property of the library. They cannot be returned. Some donations will be added to the collection. The same criteria for inclusion in the library’s collection apply to gifts as to purchased materials. The rest will be sold in our annual book sale. Donations added to the collection may be subsequently withdrawn when they are worn or when their content is no longer current.

The library accepts donations between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Please do not bring more items than you can carry into the library.

If you need a receipt for tax purposes, the library will provide one. We cannot, however, assign a dollar value to your donation.

Any detail can be changed to suit your library’s needs or practices. This policy should be printed on slips bearing the library’s logo, address, and phone number, and kept as a handout at the circulation desk. It should also be available under a donations
tab on your website.

A policy is not much use in the case of people who simply show up with their donations, but for the many people who do call, or who may check the library’s website for information, it can be helpful. Many donors who hear or read your policy will still bring in boxes of old magazines and textbooks. They are reluctant to discard the stuff and can’t find a recycling center that will take it all, so the library becomes the recycler of last resort. Donations are a benefit to a degree, but accepting them is also, let’s face it, a service we offer. Doing it graciously and putting on a happy face is a matter of public relations, and staff should be advised to be courteous and friendly—come what may.

Sorting Quickly

In your workroom, basement, foyer, or somewhere else within the library you have scores and scores of boxes and bags piled up, full of donated materials and ready to be sorted. What happens during this step, and how it happens, is crucial in determining whether or not handling donations eats up more staff time than they’re worth.

If the job is done by staff, make sure it is consistently done by the same staff member, or no more than a few who are all on the same page as far as sorting criteria. There may be the tendency to think this is an unpleasant task, so everybody has to take a whack at it, but such thinking is detrimental to the process. Over time, one person can build up skills and routines, not to mention a sense of ownership in the process, which will lead to a better job done.

If the job is handled by volunteers, your priorities in purely institutional terms are: (1) making sure that work areas are kept reasonably clear of clutter, and (2) making sure that all, or at least most, of what might make good additions to the collection are seen by the staff. This means assigning a staff member who is experienced with the process to train and oversee volunteers, and who should be following the same procedures as a well-trained employee.

You won’t always be able to sort donations when they arrive. You may not even be able to get to them within weeks of their arrival. But it should be a priority that as soon as possible, every box or bag gets opened, just to determine roughly what’s in it, and whether it’s in decent condition. Boxes full of proscribed items like magazines and textbooks can be quickly discarded or sent to recycling. With staff time at a premium it may be hard even to find time for this step; but space is also usually at a premium, and too often we pile up boxes and spend weeks or even months stumbling around them, when one hour’s work might lessen the problem significantly.

This step can also alert you early on to whether any of the boxes are harboring mold, mildew, or insects that qualify them for immediate discarding. Many libraries are in older buildings with bad air circulation, and a load of moldy books can play havoc with employees’ allergies, so it serves everyone well to make this step a priority.

Once the obvious rubbish has been eliminated, and when time permits, the actual sorting begins. It takes a decisive mind to do this job well. The employee who does it must feel fully empowered and know that there will be little or no second-guessing of decisions. The more time spent on each item to be considered, the more you decrease its value as a donation. You really don’t want an item to pass over two or three employees’ desks before it ends up on the sale table priced at fifty cents.

Donations will in general break down into three basic categories, so plan your sorting space (such as it is) to accommodate them:

  1. Items to be recycled/discarded.
  2. Items for sale.
  3. Items to be considered for the collection.

At this point you should have gone through the donations once to find the obvious discards. More may surface as you begin unpacking. It doesn’t pay to be wishy-washy about things that are dirty, moldy, or falling apart. On close calls use a simple rule of thumb: when in doubt, toss it out. This may seem like a mercenary attitude, but it’s the only way to keep the process moving. Pack them up and get them into your dumpster quickly, so you can turn your attention to the more valuable items.

You should recycle discards where possible. Paperbacks can often go into regular paper recycling bins, and some recyclers accept hardcover books. Check recyclers in your area to find out.

Items for Sale

There are two traditional models for selling donations: the occasional big-event book sale, and the sale table in the library.  There’s not much difference in how one sorts items for one or the other. But there may be significant differences in who’s doing the work and in how things are stored after sorting.

For an occasional book sale, items are sorted and then stored somewhere pending the next sale date. In this case, it’s useful if books are sorted according to subject, though few of us have space to set up separate boxes for home repair, cookery, health, history, biography, and so on. But you probably do have room to separate fiction and nonfiction—and this saves lots of time and effort for the folks who will be setting up the sale. But remember that you’re not cataloging the books; it’s not critical that every item goes exactly where it’s supposed to, so don’t sit for five minutes pondering whether a book is fiction or nonfiction. Throw it in a box and move on.

For an ongoing sale table, items are usually just displayed together, and sorting between fiction and nonfiction matters little. But again, there are varying theories about what to sell. Some libraries sell everything at a uniform price—like fifty cents for a paperback and a dollar for a hardcover book. Others pull out the nicer, gently used items and give them higher prices: two,  three, or four dollars for a current hardcover by a popular author, even more for goodlooking coffee table books. Much depends on the economic status of your library users, but this can be an effective way to bring in extra revenue. It’s also worthwhile, if you don’t have one, to invest in some kind of display unit for sale books. It’s an expense, but if it helps you move merchandise, it should pay for itself many times over.

All the details of handling an annual or semiannual book sale are beyond the scope of this article. But you should note that a law of diminishing returns does apply. The more time library staff spends on the sale, the less it is worth to your bottom line. The ideal situation is when the whole thing is handled by an active and competent Friends group, which is the standard model in many libraries. Donated items being sold by volunteer labor means nearly pure profit. If you don’t have a Friends group, or some other reliable group of volunteer labor, you may be better off just running an in-house sale table. You may not sell as many items as you would in a big sale event, but neither will you incur vast expenses in staff time preparing for it.

Past these traditional sales methods, online sales are becoming popular, and can also be handled by staff or volunteers.  Amazon is a popular venue for selling used books, though some people prefer eBay, Alibris, and other sites. Newcomers to these sites often find that using them takes more work than they thought—but many librarians report significant income from online sales. The most successful tend to concentrate their efforts in the areas of first editions, signed editions, or “like new” copies of popular authors’ works. It’s a great job to assign to a staff member or volunteer who already has some online ability, and can work with minimal supervision.

Adding Donations to the Collection—Back to Policy

The best thing to bear in mind when adding donations to the collection is that they are not free. Yes, the item you are holding in your hand was free, but your time, as you consider whether to add it, is paid time. Should you decide to make it part of the collection, it goes to your cataloguer, another expense, and then on to processing, where someone else is paid getting the most from donations to affix a spine label, barcode, security tape, pocket, jacket, and other things that all cost money.

Neither should you forget about the cost of taking up shelf space. Few libraries have so much space to spare that they can just pile things up; and libraries that have lots of space want to fill it only with items that make a positive difference in their collections and give patrons valuable reading choices.

Understanding that adding donations to the library is an expense in a couple of ways, the sooner you lose the “what the heck, it’s free” mindset, the better. Just as with purchased items, the source to turn to is your Collection Development Policy. Remember in the donations policy I said, the same criteria for inclusion in the library’s collection apply to gifts as to purchased materials. This statement comes from your Collection Development Policy.

If your Collection Development Policy says you don’t add paperback books, videocassettes, or textbooks, you can quickly pack up all of those as sale items. If your policy has a good statement about the scope of technical expertise offered in your collection, you can pass over all those medical or science books with subject matter way beyond the interest or comprehension of the general reader. And if your Collection Development Policy states that information in books selected for the collection must be timely and current, you won’t give a second thought to four- and five-year-old travel books.

Any of these things could be decided based on a librarian’s common sense, experience, and knowledge of the collection. But efficient sorting requires decisiveness, and nothing combats indecision like firm policy points. If you don’t have a Collection Development Policy, you should start working on one. But even without the policy, there are many useful tips one can rely on in making quick decisions and adding only what is of real value.

First, set standards for things you consider adding:

  • nothing worn or dirty;
  • nothing with highlighting;
  • no advanced reader’s copy, galleys, or proofs;
  • no incomplete sets;
  • no edition of a handbook or manual if a newer edition shows up in your catalog;
  • nothing likely to contain outdated information (such as travel, medicine, science, and personal finance); and
  • nothing specific to a state or region not your own (that may be a beautiful picture book of the wildflowers of Vermont—but it has little use if you’re working for a library in Mississippi).

Nothing in this process can substitute for an experienced, well-read librarian or technician who just knows collections, and who has a broad general idea of literature in the disciplines. Nobody knows it all, but by assigning this work to someone with the broadest grasp of these things you can expect the best return on the time spent sorting. Not everyone sorting through a pile of science books will spot the copy of Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and know that it should be in a wellrounded science collection. Some people may pass over heaps of books on religion and not see a clean, new edition of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain or Augustine’s Confessions. Even in crafts and needle arts there are better known authors, like Donna Kooler (crochet, cross-stitch), Kaffé Fassett (knitting), or Nancy Zieman (sewing). Their books are likely to attract more attention in your collection than just any old book on cross-stitch, knitting, or sewing.

Shy away from just another volume of generic information on a subject, like a Time Life book on gardening, in favor of books authored by authorities. This is truer as we move deeper into the Internet Age. Years ago, people who liked to look at pictures of interesting things and read a little about those things swarmed to Time Life, Reader’s Digest, and other series books on history, culture, or paranormal phenomena. Nowadays, that sort of reading is done largely on the Web, while people who have a deeper interest in a subject still read monographs by known authors. Even as libraries are withdrawing the old Our Fabulous Century, Time Frame, or Gardener’s Guide series, people are clearing the same things out of their basements. Don’t make the mistake of adding what common sense dictates you don’t need, just because somebody gives it to you.

While many people will find the titles they want by browsing your shelves, many others rely exclusively on your catalog. You need to be aware of how your catalog lists items and consider whether the items you add will ever be found. In particular, think about date rankings. If the most recent publications are listed first, and you are adding an item that won’t be listed until the third or fourth page of titles, you may be wasting time and money. Perhaps you have a donation that includes several good books on electronics. It’s not that hard to check your catalog and see what shows up on the first few pages of the catalog when you look up electronics. If the dates that display are all newer than the books you are looking at, then these are not very valuable additions.

When handling classic works, things such as Plato’s Republic or Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which even moderately sized collections include, you should first make sure the copy before you is in good condition: a firm spine, pages not gray or faded, and no highlighting. These works may be hundreds or even thousands of years old, but patrons still like reading clean, modern editions of them. If you don’t have a copy of the work in hand, by all means add it. If you have a copy, but yours is ancient and worn, then a replacement is called for. But don’t go to the trouble and expense of replacing a classic text just to update your edition by ten years, if the one on the shelf is in good condition. Remember too that there are new, sometimes award-winning translations of ancient texts, like Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf or Robert Fagles’ Aeneid. These make great replacements to worn old editions of the same texts.

Sorting fiction can be time-consuming because so much good stuff comes in, tempting you to add it all. But remember shelf space. Authors like Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel already fill up two or three shelves, and unless you are looking at their most recent, heavily requested book, you probably don’t need a second copy. The good thing is that so often a box full of books will have several titles by the same author; it’s just how people read. So if you have eight books by Janet Evanovich, gather them up and check your catalog to see which ones are missing. It pays also to check the shelf to see which ones are in sorry shape.Maybe you’ll replace two and put the rest right into the book sale.

Some authors are subject to frequent losses. In most libraries where I’ve worked it always paid to check holdings for Stephen King when I handled donated copies of his books; the same goes for books on the prophecies of Nostradamus. You probably know other examples of this.

Another thing to watch for are older works by an author who is suddenly well-known. An example would be finding a copy of The Tennis Partner, the 1998 memoir by Abraham Verghese, now that his Cutting for Stone made such a sensation. You may not go to the expense of buying these things, but how nice it is to have a copy for patrons who become interested in the author.

The same might be true for an older book that has just been made into a popular movie, and people suddenly want to read or reread the book. A donated copy is an ideal way to supply that likely temporary demand.

Any or all of these standards may be foregone in the case of libraries with little or no book budget, or that are rebuilding due to flood, fire, or other disaster. But for most of us, careful consideration is the watchword; adding less rather than more of the donations that pour in our doors.

A Money-Saving Tip

It’s always best to seal up boxes of books before discarding them. Members of the public (or even the actual donors) who see these things in dumpsters may not understand our reasons for getting rid of them. Library staff will often use book tape to seal up boxes, since it’s ubiquitous in library workrooms. But book tape is just about the most expensive tape you can find. Invest in a few rolls of boxsealing tape, at less than half the cost of book tape, and save a few dollars on your clerical supplies budget.

Marketing Your Sale Table

If you run a sale table in your library, remember a basic principle of retail marketing: a display that stays up too long is no longer a display, but a fixture, and nobody notices a fixture. Make sure you rotate stock and change your sale table regularly to keep patrons browsing it. Key it to your checkout period. If you circulate items for two or three weeks, you should display new sale items approximately every two or three weeks, so people returning regularly will see new items each time they visit. At one library, they mark the edge of the pages of sale books with colored markers, so they can tell which ones have been on the table longer than two months and discard them in favor of new selections.


  1. IRS, Charitible Contributions: Substantiation and Disclosure Requirements, www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p1771.pdf (accessed Mar. 3, 2010): 3.
  2. IRS, Determining the Value of Donated Property, www.irs.gov/publications/p561/index.html (accessed Mar. 3, 2010).