October 5, 2022

Too many used books? Want to help literacy efforts? Here’s what to do.

As nightstand “To Be Read” piles grow and donation boxes expand, readers are consuming more and more books each year. At the same time, the publishing industry still faces a looming threat to the production of physical books, caused by paper and industry shortages, all while millions of children lack access to books of their own, whether at home or at school and public libraries. That all effects national literacy, with 43 million adults possessing low literacy skills, according to the National Center of Education.

What does this mean for those of us who are cleaning out our libraries this spring? Literacy advocates say it’s an opportunity to be a little more aware of our donation’s impact — and to act accordingly. 

Molly Ness, for example, is a literacy advocate and founder of the Coalition for Literacy Equity, a coalition of nonprofits, literacy advocates, authors, and others involved in cultivating stronger literacy and reading culture for children and families around the country. Ness also created the associated initiative and podcast End Book Deserts, which highlights the work of organizations and grassroots campaigns working to get books in the hands of children to foster reading development. Before her present literacy work, Ness was a professor of literacy education for 16 years at Fordham University, and got involved in on-the-ground campaigns like the neighborhood book drives she coordinated in her own front yard. Those grassroots initiatives inspired her to find other effective ways to help get books into the hands of people around the country and involve others, as well.   

“In my work, as a teacher, educator, and just constantly thinking about literacy, I came across statistics that show the lack of books is an addressable issue. I am specifically referring to the research around book deserts, which is largely written about by Susan Newman, professor at New York University,” Ness explained. Book deserts refer to geographic areas where printed reading materials are hard to obtain due to structural or social barriers, like transportation, income, library access, or language. According to data by nonprofits Unite for Literacy and Room to Read, at least half of American homes are typified as book deserts. The nonprofit’s definition (having access to less than 100 books) applies to individual homes within corridors of underserved areas in various parts of the country. The numbers are also starkly different based on income and race. “Literacy is an issue of public health and an issue of social justice. Where we are as a country with regard to literacy rates, reading instruction, and the decline of reading in general has really huge ramifications on us in terms of health and our economy,” Ness said.

The support of community members and their donations are an essential part of this work, as Ness explains — a segment of a larger effort to get books into hands that can actually make use of them. Just the same, individual donors should extend the same care and attention that literacy advocates give to reading campaigns, with more awareness to how simple book donations can act as a tool for social justice.


We want to be really mindful about the message and the quality of what we’re giving.

For those with a pile of books to get rid of and a desire to make sure those books are having a positive social and environmental impact, here’s what to do.

Donate (conscientiously)

The obvious choice for many looking to get rid of their stashes of novellas, periodicals, and aging children’s books, public donations are usually the first place people look. But don’t immediately jump to the nearest donation box down the street with a box full of every book you want to get rid of. Book libraries, used book stores, book drives, or even Little Free Libraries — a national nonprofit and community initiative that’s not without fair debate about the small houses’ efficacy and contribution to gentrification — aren’t just dumping grounds for any mass market paperback or half-used activity books. Book donations should have more thought than mere spring cleaning.  

“I encourage people to be really mindful,” said Ness. “We want to be really mindful about the message and the quality of what we’re giving.” 

Other nonprofits and reading organizations agree. Book Riot, a publication (and podcast) focused on book and reading culture, writes that the most important thing to do in the donation process is to honor the book needs of the places and people you’re donating to. Don’t donate old textbooks or academic materials, Book Riot explains, as “the current textbook market is very different than it was even 10 years ago, with a much bigger emphasis on customizable texts that change from semester to semester and online access codes.” It’s highly likely other people won’t get use out of those books, and they’ll end up collecting dust or in the landfill anyway. This also applies to out of date How-To guides or reference materials. And just generally refrain from donating overly loved books, especially those designed for young children and infants (for whom you have to be bit more careful about health and safety concerns).

Ness says this consideration is step number one. “The rule of thumb that I always give people when they are thinking about the next home for their books is, if it’s not good enough for a child in your home or family, it’s not good enough for any kid,” she said. It’s a rule that applies across the board to adult and general book drives as well — if no one out there wants to read the book, if it’s outdated or overused, don’t donate it.

“These programs — their burden should be lightened by our donations, not made into more work [when someone drops] off a bunch of outdated yellow page books that nobody wants to read anymore. And for kids who don’t have access to books, it’s even more important for them to get the new books, the shiny books, the books that are hot off the presses, and the books that kids are clamoring to read,” explained Ness.

Step one, then, is to actually research the place you’re donating to, what types of materials and communities the organization serves, and what kinds of books they actually need. Don’t be afraid to reach out directly and ask if the program or organization would make use of your specific books, said Ness.

If your donation options are vast and varied, it might be beneficial to split up that box into smaller piles specific to different donation opportunities, like:

Public libraries

The American Library Association, one of the oldest and largest library associations in the world, suggests your local public library as the first spot to offload used books. If it exists, the association recommends seeking out the library’s Friends of the Library group — volunteer-based nonprofits that assist in things like library operations, fundraising, and book drives — for more direct assistance in curating and accepting your books.

If your local public library can’t accept your donation or your materials are outside its scope, try reaching out to an academic library (like a subject specific library or nearby university library) or even a statewide library. You can search here for local, national, and federal libraries.

Most of these institutions will have specific guidelines for donations posted physically on site or online. The association has a general guide for which books not to donate, as well, including those that are moldy, burnt, or water-damaged; books with damaged bindings, covers, or pages; annotated books; and many reference books like Readers Digest Condensed books, encyclopedias, National Geographic books and magazines, workbooks, study guides, textbooks, or other professional materials. Many organizations stopped accepting physical donations during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, so be sure to double-check for any updated donation policies.


For kids who don’t have access to books, it’s even more important for them to get the new books, the shiny books, the books that are hot off the presses…

Prison book drives

Literacy campaigns for incarcerated individuals are another productive donation site for gently used or recently purchased books. These programs get books directly to incarcerated populations who often have limited, sometimes censored, libraries, or who depend on the generosity of family and friends to obtain any educational or recreational reading materials. Depending on their mission, these organizations might also offer more flexibility in donations, since many encourage educational materials, How-To books, and activity books.

Check out the American Library Association’s guide to prison library donations, Book Riot’s How-To guide to prison donations, or local libraries that also host prison book drives, like the New York Public Library’s Jail and Prison Services. You can also find a few nationwide organizations accepting help to get books to these populations below:

  • LGBTQ Books to Prisoners is a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization based in Wisconsin that connects LGBTQ individuals in prisons around the country with books and educational materials. You can view what kind of books and reading materials the organization needs — including books with LGBTQ representation, law books, and contemporary fiction — on its website before donating. 

  • Books to Prisoners is one of the oldest nonprofits sending books to incarcerated people around the United States. Established in 1973 and based in Seattle, Washington, the organization mails thousands of donated books around the country every year. According to Books to Prisoners, more than 1,000 book requests come in every month, so demand is always high. Requests include dictionaries, African American history and fiction, Native American studies, legal materials, genre fiction (fantasy and horror), and foreign language learning materials. Read more about how to donate your books here.

  • Women’s Prison Book Project was founded in 1994 to provide women, transgender, and nonbinary people in prisons with free reading materials across a variety of subjects. Go to the organization’s website to see current needs and how to donate your books.    

Book exchanges

Yet another way to “donate” your books, book exchanges allow individuals to swap out their libraries and build social connections. This can also foster a more positive reading culture, something that Ness says is vital to building literacy among both children and adults. 

“Getting books into the hands of kids is step number one. And it’s kind of the easiest step. What is harder, and what’s more longitudinal, is building reading culture. And that is being entrenched in the community… Helping parents who may not be readers themselves, or may have negative associations with school because of their own childhood experiences,” Ness said.

While the history and operation of book exchanges is often very informal, run by friends, neighbors, and community groups, national and international book exchanges have grown and offer a wider opportunity to exchange your newer personal books. Check out organizations like Book Crossing, a national social networking site that helps people exchange and track their old books, connecting millions of people in need or want of books and reading communities. 

Literacy campaigns

Finally, donate your books to local literacy campaigns trying to get books to children in your area. The Coalition for Literacy Equity offers some assistance finding donation options near you. “There’s a map you can scroll down to — put in your zip code or hone in on your area, and connect with book distribution areas, book vans, and bookmobiles, and all these different literacy programs that will be able to help and take books that people are looking to give away,” Ness explained.

Or find a national literacy group that also accepts individual donations, like Better World Books, a literacy organization and used book site that redistributes used books to libraries for either circulation or sale. Proceeds of used book sales go to purchasing new books or monetary donations to other literacy campaigns distributing books to communities around the country.

Recycle

Ensuring your donations have a net positive effect also means having consideration for the environmental impact of overconsumption and paper waste. Since not all books should be donated to nonprofits or recirculated onto shelves, often the best choice for your old library items is the recycling bin, either due to the physical quality, type of book, or subject matter.

According to the American Forest and Paper Association, the amount of paper products successfully recycled each year has exceeded 63 percent since 2009 — 5.6 percent of that number is printed paper from newspapers, books, and other media. That’s a recycling feat in an environmental process that’s often limited by strict restrictions and poor recycling practices, and, ultimately, can only do so much. Paper recycling is a repeatedly productive process, though, the association explains, with the fibers from paper products being reused as many as 5 to 7 seven times.  

So, when in doubt, put your books in the recycling bin. Keep in mind, paper recycling rules depend on your city and state regulations. Generally, most paperbacks, newspapers, and other paper-only products are fully recyclable. However, any books with non-paper elements have to be taken apart before being tossed in the bin. For hardback books, that means removing outside covers completely, including any strings, glue, or cloth binding it together. If a book has a cover with a plastic film or insert, separate those according to your local guidelines. And, just like with donations, if books are seriously damaged by things like mold, water, and other major stains, they shouldn’t be put in with other paper recycling. 

Reuse

Like the age-old environmental motto says, don’t forget the option to reuse any books you can’t donate or recycle. Ness says to look into creative ways to reuse the books on your shelves, from art and crafting projects to decor. Individuals or organizations might also accept piles of old books for non-educational purposes. “There are super cool people on sites like Etsy that take books and repurpose them into art or things like that. If you have that Nancy Drew book that you love, and you just can’t bring yourself to toss, there are artists who can use them,” she suggested.

Books are important social and educational tools, used as facilitators of change, of community, and of personal identity. When possible, get rid of them with care, and ensure they continue to serve a social and environmentally positive role even in their second lives. “There are just so many different engaging, creative things going on [with literacy building],” Ness said. “I’m so excited when I see organizations that mindfully approach that.”