gifts are free like kittens

The husband of a recently and unexpectedly deceased faculty member is cleaning out his wife’s office next week.  It’s a sad kind of project to embark on, tidying up and sorting and giving away someone’s professional and research world, knowing that she was unable to finish the things she had hoped to accomplish.  And this morning I discovered that he has contacted the libraries, asking for our assistance in finding good homes for her materials.  I replied with several goals in mind: Assist him in whatever way I can with this difficult task, ensure that her research materials find an appropriate home in the College Archives, and minimize the libraries’ workload as much as possible.

That last may seem selfish, or uncharitable, but it’s not, really.  I’ve learned, in my 10 years of processing gift collections in academic libraries, that senior researchers, long-time friends of the college, and retiring faculty all have one thing in common:  They collect good books.  That’s a great thing, right?  It means that their donated collections are wonderful for libraries, right?

Not always.  In fact, rarely.

See, dedicated faculty members collect good books — and they also request that the library buy them.  I would estimate that 80-90% of the books in any retiring faculty member’s personal library are already in our library, and our copies are usually in better condition than the personal copy, since library books are used less on average than a serious researcher’s copies.  So a gift from a retiring faculty member contains about 10-20% of truly valuable materials for our collection, but all 100% of them need to be handled, evaluated, searched, processed, and redistributed through our donation and sales programs.  Gift books are free like kittens, and we’ve already got enough cats to herd right now.

But even knowing that truth about the workload and value of a donation, I don’t ever want to say “I can’t help you” to someone desiring to make a generous gesture.  We love the friends of libraries, and we want to support their friendship.  In this case, I also genuinely want to assist in a difficult situation.  So I made three offers.

One, that I would evaluate the materials in her office with an eye to preserving her research on the history of the College in the College Archives.  Two, that I would review the book collection on behalf of the libraries after her colleagues had a chance to mine it for materials useful for their own teaching and research.  And, three, that I would assist the family in finding appropriate homes for all materials not needed by the college community.

The third one is where I think libraries and collection managers can do their best outreach — it’s not always the case that friends of the libraries want to give the books specifically to the library — it’s just that they don’t always know what to do with them other than throw them away, and “the library will want them!” sounds reasonable to them.  So if the library doesn’t want them, the worst thing we can do is say “No, go away”.  Not very friendly, and not helping them with their need.  What we can do is offer assistance.

I have a storehouse of local used booksellers who will evaluate collections and buy books, and regularly recommend them to potential donors.  I have a business arrangement with Better World Books, so if the donor wants to donate the books to the library with the understanding that I will disperse them as I see fit, I can guarantee that I will be sending them to an organization that makes the most of them.  I regularly suggest campus clubs and organizations that do fundraising events, who might be interested in running a book sale.  What I try never to do is say “no, go away”.

So despite the fact that I’m in fiscal year-end purgatory and about to enter summer construction hell, I’m going to help out next week, because a friend of the library has an information need, and I have some answers.  And that’s what librarians do.


  1. Finding out that no gift is truly free was perhaps the hardest thing that I learned after library school. Space, processing, staff time, tattle tape. . . none of these are free. Nonetheless, especially for a small college library like mine, there are often items that are wonderful additions to the collection. Thank you for your take on this dilemma. You have found a way to deal with this issue in a way that is positive for everyone involved including the wonderful people who donate materials to us.


  2. It’s a hard lesson to learn, isn’t it? Part of my work as a paraprofessional, both before and during graduate school, was processing gift collections, and I was completely astounded by how much work went into something “free”, and how hard it was to say no to a book. I love books. Libraries love books. Free is good. But free books for libraries just aren’t always good. Education and experience have made it easier for me to articulate why to donors, but it’s still no fun to say no to a kind gesture…


  3. That’s a really great approach to this situation. Donations are always difficult as each donation is something that is very personal. This situation is doubly hard because it affects someone going through a difficult time. A bad decision can make the situation worse. I can adopt some of these suggestions at my library.


  4. Your phrase struck me, “What I try never to do is say “no, go away”.” No one wants to feel that their lifetime of work or their “generous” offer isn’t appreciated or isn’t valuable enough to the library or the organization. Great solution and good PR, too!


  5. The other benefit of helping and not saying “no, go away” is that you retain the good will of the people making the donation offer. Our director of development is always on us about maintaining good relations — one never knows when a donor may also have a wad of cash they want to give the library at a later date.


  6. Jeff, I’m glad to help!

    Kate, exactly. I want everyone who approaches us to feel like I honestly considered what they offered, and made them the best counteroffer that I was able to. And it’s not just about making them feel that way — I want to actually do it, even when my every over-worked instinct screams “I do not have time!”

    Right on, Laura. It’s not just donors with money, either — being a good partner can lead to maintaining the goodwill of someone who has political connections your library needs, who can provide you with a great outreach opportunity, who can be an important consultant on a new initiative, or who is simply a voice in the community in support of your institution. All of those things matter. Most of all, though, I want to do my work from a principled place, one that says that goodwill matters, helping people matters, and effectiveness matters. And if, in the process, I make a rich alumnus happy, well, more power to us all!


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