Bibliophile’s dilemma: Finding new homes for used books

Here’s a riddle: What do books and corn have in common?  The answer:  overabundance. Reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (which I snatched up at my local library’s gently used book sale) started me thinking about the dilemma of having more product than market. Pollan’s description of towers of rotting bumper-crop corn piled up outside maxed-out grain elevators reminded me of the tower of boxes containing leftover donated books on the last day of the book sale at the  library in the small, Hudson Valley town where I live.

At every used-book sale I’ve been involved with, I’ve been intimately aware of this: the bibliophile’s dilemma. I have the privilege and sometimes burden of being one of a handful of volunteer book sorters to touch and review every donated book spine.  Many books find homes.  But often, like the runt of the litter left behind, some books, particularly those of a technical nature and specialized topics, do not find their way into the arms of hungry readers.

In fact, the aftermath of a book sale often is the most fraught for the book lover. Being somewhat new to this endeavor, in my first year of sorting, I was aghast to learn that some of the like-new books were recycled—never to have the chance to provide that one sentence or one paragraph to someone whose understanding might be altered forever by a nugget of wisdom or a thought never before considered.

Donating the unsold books is sometimes successful and sometimes not. The diversity of the individuals and organizations that accept book donations speaks to the difficulty of “getting rid” of the unsold books. This year, children’s and juvenile titles went to Catholic Charities and to a teacher in Appalachia. A teacher of juvenile offenders at a maximum-security prison carted away three or four boxes. Veterans got into the game as well, when our congressman’s spouse took a few boxes for distribution.  At last year’s sale a counseling facility for abused women took five or six boxes. A local low-security prison sometimes accepts paperback adventure and mystery (no pornography or male nudes, thank you) but in limited quantities. A local nursing home will accept large-print titles.

Larger charitable organizations, such as Goodwill, accept books in manageable quantities:  five or six boxes at a time over time. And the ultimate salvation: Salvation Army. For the past two sales, the regional headquarters in Albany took a pickup truck’s worth of boxes of books.

But even there, the dilemma rankles:  Will the books ever have the chance to fulfill the authors’ intent: to educate, to entertain, to open up a mind?  Or do all those painstakingly chosen words ultimately end up being bleached away, pulped, and obliterated anyway?

Like much in our wasteful consumer society, the same question abounds:  Why is there not a better, more efficient, and meaningful system for transferring the wealth—whether food or the printed word—to those who need it the most?

Pondering this dilemma sent me to the Internet, where I found a jumble of organizations committed to the mission:  Books Behind Bars, Book Aid International, Books for Africa, Bridge to Asia Books Program, and Books for International Goodwill to name just a few.

Adopt a Library, a clearinghouse for matching libraries searching for book donations and book donors, sounded particularly interesting. The work of the organization has been so successful that it has been officially recognized by Congress through creation of the Adopt a Library National Day.

One organization listed on the Adopt a Library website intrigued me.  And how could it not?  The Camel Library.  The name itself sets the mind wandering.  Founded in 1996, in that year just three camels plus a librarian trekked with as many books as could be loaded on each animal’s back (about 200) to deliver them to nomadic tribes living in the impoverished region in Kenya’s northeastern province near the Somalian border. Today the organization’s transport system has increased to twelve camels, affectionately dubbed the camel mobile.  The determination and dedication of those volunteers to deliver what is now more than seven thousand books is truly inspiring.

And though my imagination is caught by the exoticism of the camels carrying their intellectual burden to excited children and adults who would otherwise have no access,  and caught too by the image of the books being laid out on a blanket under the acacia trees for readers to excitedly peruse, my heart is caught by needs closer to home, particularly the needs of some of America’s most chronically overlooked and ignored groups:  reservation-residing Native Americans.  Seeking your help, many tribal colleges and reservations are posting their wish lists on the Adopt a Library website.  To all of you bibliophiles out there:  Take a look, share the bounty, and resolve the dilemma.