Libraries destroy books carrying costs exceed liquidity premia no free disposal edition

The first and most obvious objection is, why not give the books to the poor? They need stuff to read. Or to prisoners? Or to sick kids? Or to struggling independent booksellers? It doesn’t cost a thing to give something away, right?

The problem is the situation for a library is more complicated than when you just take a bunch of old clothes and unwanted porn down to the Salvation Army. A library book is stamped and bugged and cataloged so that the library knows that it belongs to them. When a book is given away or sold, the library has to go through and remove all that crap, so whoever winds up with it can prove they didn’t just steal it off the shelf. I’m not kidding about that, either — some people who wind up with such books helpfully return them to the library.

And we’re talking about a lot of books here — these libraries are having to cut down their stock in a hurry. Imagine you’re the manager of a library, and some accountant tells you that you need to get rid of 100,000 books, and do it in a week. You really have two options. One, you can get a bunch of academics to scour your collection and painstakingly rate each book according to its value and importance. Then you can hire a bunch of people to take down the 100,000 least important books and painstakingly stamp and debug them, one by one. Your second option is to get the computer to spit out a list of the 100,000 least borrowed books, and hire a few people to walk down the aisles with their arms out, throwing those books in a shredding machine.

That second option is much quicker and much cheaper. Sometimes you can find a paper recycling centre that will pay you for the pulp, so destroying the books leads to a net profit. Nobody likes it, but for a librarian it’s like your best friend just got bitten by a zombie and you’re the only one with a gun.

Also, remember that the stuff worth saving is buried among a lot of other books that are basically garbage. Though everyone realizes that extremely valuable books are going to inevitably get caught in the same net, there’s not much that can be done about it. Nobody is going to order a first-edition Moby-Dick from a library warehouse if the 2011 reprint is sitting right there on the shelf. A computer list that ranks books by popularity can’t tell the difference.

Another downside to this option is that you have to ensure total destruction. You can’t just throw the books in a Dumpster for some asshole to come along and grab later. If you go the Dumpster option, you have to tear out chapters so that people won’t want them, or just fill the Dumpster with detergent. You don’t want people to get in the habit of treating your Dumpster like the clearance rack — it’s dangerous and messy for everyone involved.

There is much more at the link.


Not sure why somebody taking a book out of a dumpster is an asshole.

Would it be too much to ask for them to put all those books in one big container and ship them off to some poorer country which still might have a bit of respect left for books? I am sure some development organisation would be happy to pay for the shipping and other minor logistic charges. People just dont want to think anymore, thats the real problem

What poor book starved country reads English?

See below - but Kenya is an example of a book starved country that reads English which I know of personally, assuming nothing has changed much in the intervening time (to my understanding, not much has changed).

I'm increasingly convinced that books are overhyped out of proportion to their utility in modern Western culture.

I agree. Much of the outcry seems to be sentimental attachment to books as a concept, rather than the actual information that is in them.

Rohan, if it were cheaper to do it that way, I suspect it would be done that way. The shipping and logistic charges wouldn't be minor. Books are heavy and a slog to sort.
I knew a nonprofit that had a used book sale, thinking it would be an easy way to make money. The sale did make money, but they were surprised how much effort went into sorting. And a lot of what they sorted had to be carted away before the sale - lots of 1950s history books got donated. Then after the sale, they had to figure out what to do with the unsold books - a couple truckloads of them. They never held another sale.
The interesting truth is that, given modern technology, a bound book is a terribly inefficient way to store information. None of us (me included) feel that way right now. We're all just now getting accustomed to the fact.
But a bound book is bulky and hard to search. Only one person can access it at a time. It's relatively easy to damage.
With the same money, the poorer country would be better served by a donation of a couple hundred Kindles and subscriptions.

I remember overhearing some staff at a local Half-Price Books talking about a local organization that had inquired if they could supply some books for a fundraiser requesting something along the lines of "anything you don't need" expecting maybe a couple boxes of books, to which the employee commented that if they were serious, they could fill up a couple 18-wheelers with said material (one of the things Half-Price Books does is sell "books-by-the-yard" to people like interior decorator, hotels, and furniture stores to fill up their empty shelves).

I love looking through a pile of old books as much as anyone, but honestly 99% of it is generally garbage that would be of no use to anyone. Much of the greatest literature in history is now available for free online. And of course, high-quality books are still available at libraries. Donating a crappy book to someone might actually have negative value if it keeps them from spending time on the good material that was already available to them.

For decades, my home town(Garland, Texas) library has raised funds with an annual used book sale. When I was a kid, I think all the books were donated, but 10 or 15 years ago, I noticed old library books being sold. This year, at least 75% of them were library discards. However, the number of books was less than half of what was being offered 4 years ago(the last time I went). This could be because they're trying to do it on a semiannual basis,but I wonder if people became less likely to donate as the number of ex-library books increased. The only thing done to the books was a black marker run across the bar code on the outside. They always held the sale so one didn't have to go through the security, so they didn't have to demagnetize the books. The actual sale is run by the Friends of the Library, who I think actually started it back when.

My guess they had demagnetized all the books, but sold them "outside" so there would be no confusion on which books needed to be checked out.

Even the rfid tagged books can usually be detagged by using a signal that blows the fusible link built in for that purpose.

If the library is using barcodes or rfid tags, the way to pull the old books is with a scanner held by the people pulling books are re-shelving books and doing the inventory. They are wireless and connected to the computer catalog.

I think the real problem for the large reference libraries is the number of volumes that are technical, the volumes of artillery tables, of chemical properties, of drug properties, atlases, corporate listings, D&B references, and the modern equivalent, the dozen books of MSDOS 3.1, then 3.2, then 4.0, then 5.0, on the Apple Lisa and Commodore.

Local libraries have lots of paperbacks that they sell because romance, mysteries, scifi, etc get recycled through the goodwill and thrift stores if nothing else.

If I take a reference book off a library shelf and consult it for half an hour and then replace it (or leave it for a librarian to reshelve), how will the library have any record that the book was in fact used more than zero times in the last X number of years?

On an unrelated note, this is surely the first time that MR has linked to, which is part of the Demand Media clickbait menagerie, and better known for articles like "9 Awesome Places to Have Sex (And the Horrific Consequences)".

I'll bet one of those places is the library.

If you leave it for a librarian to reshelve, it will get checked out and immediately checked back in before being replaced, to create a record it was used.

This is part of the reason why you're not supposed to reshelve the books yourself.

I didn't know that! Why don't they just say so?

Many 'Friends of the Library' groups have annual book sales. Some are old library discards. Some are donations.

I know some university libraries are restricted by statute (depending on the state) from selling discarded books.

Moreover, you don't need to tear out the library card or other information. Once you determine what books are to be discarded, you either stamp them with DISCARDED or mark an 'x' on the catalogue card or barcode. The time-consuming part is locating books to discard, not stamping them or making them 'sellable'.

Simple as that! If it's discarded, you don't care if they take it. All you have to do is stamp it and no one will get confused and return it. If it's against the law to give away used books, put a jar next to the pile and tell people to throw pennies in there. Once the pile has been picked over, there are plenty of people with wood burning stoves who would be happy to drive to your library and haul the mess away for free. Honestly, if the only practical option you can think of is shoveling books into a wood chipper, you are using your brain wrong.

I think you're missing the gist of the article. It is expensive to stamp 10,000 books as DISCARD.

But you only need to stamp the book when/if it finds a new owner. You could just provide the rubber stamp and make it self-serve, as a condition of carrying off the book.

I suspect the real issue is that a librarian's worst nightmare is picking up the newspaper one day and reading an interview with someone who boasts of picking up a valuable first edition for free in the library discard pile, like one of those stories about finding a rare painting for $5 at a garage sale. It could even be a career-limiting move if some busybody state senator decides to hold hearings about such a shocking waste of taxpayer money. Far better to destroy the evidence. Can't really blame the librarian for being an agent whose interests are not aligned with his principles (sic).

Or the equally accurate 'Publishers destroy books carrying costs exceed liquidity premia no free disposal edition'

I've worked in a bookstore, and handled returns, including the process of 'returning' paperbacks - that is, 'stripping' them. Ripping off each cover as proof to receive credit form the publisher, along with the stipulation that the stripped books had been destroyed.

The simple fact was, printing a new copy of the book was cheaper than dealing with an already printed book being 'reused.'

This was true 3 decades ago - luckily, the Internet stepped up to save the publishers from this sort of overhead - which, of course, is why e-books are generally more expensive than their printed, and often destroyed, counterparts.

However, a small confession - we sent a lot of the stripped books to Kenya, especially hundreds of dictionaries. I'm sure the publishers are still feeling the loss in their souls that we violated their terms so blatantly.

I would happily debug the books the library don't want, if i could take some free books home.

"10.000 books will be destroyed if you don't save them!You want to save some books? Come here in the library, if you debug a book it's yours!"

Most books will probably end up destroyed anyway, but at least they'd have a chance.

Unbelievable. My local public library always has two or three people in the lending section and two or three people in the reference section. They are not busy all the time. Give them an ink stamp that says "Discarded by the library" or something along those lines, and have them stamp the discarded books during their downtime. Not hard.

Benny Lava asks: "What poor book starved country reads English?"

I know India does. I live in that country. The best bookshops stock mostly English books. School and college libraries also stock mostly English books since English is the medium of instruction in many educational institutions.

Instead of making a grand project of getting millions of unwanted books (the ones that people least rent) and sorting/shipping to Africa, and then sending to individual villages only to see them probably use as firewood or insulation (what use will a semi illiterate African have for 17'th century British poems or old political manuscripts, etc) Get the funds you would use to fund the project, and do cash transfers to families living under a dollar a day that can't read. That way you can feel all warm and fuzzy and not waste world efficiency.

This idea of sending old books to Africans is one of the WORST ideas I've ever heard. In 5 years time you will probably be able to buy iPads for 20$ in bulk and pre-install khan academy or something similar. Nostalgia is pure bias.

Ummmm libraries do just give books away all the time. I know because my wife is a librarian and we have countless books on the shelves from a variety of libraries which we either got gratis or purchased for next to nothing at second hand stores or from the libraries themselves. Our local branch always has tables set out with books for sale that are in the process of being discarded.

A lot of books that I've bought on used book websites have been ex-library books. They're usually substantially cheaper because they have all the markings and I suppose people don't want those. Here are some of the highlights:

The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek (first edition)
Value and Capital, J.R. Hicks
Natural Value, Friedrich von Wieser
The Theory of Money & Credit, Ludwig von Mises
Population, Capital & Growth, Simon Kuznets

I bought all of these for less than $10 each, most of them probably for less than $5.

I own a fair number of ex-library books. Most of them simply have a prominent DISCARDED rubber stamped over the bar code or card holder.

We have a great book sale where we live for excess/damaged library books--hardcovers are $1, paperbacks are 25 cents. People buy (some of them). It's not that difficult.

Having worked in a library on a project where thousands of unused books were being discarded and having seen those books, inflicting them on prisoners might amount to a violation of the 8th amendment.

People donate porn to the salvation army?

Beat me to it, Jason. But it is UNWANTED porn.
unwanted porn down to the Salvation Army.

Many of the books sold at library sales are donated, so they're on top of the books the library discards. And while those library sales seem massive, consider the huge amount of books the libraries need to discard and these are only a fraction. Also, a lot of old library book smell horrible.
As for book starved countries, an issue is many of them are not so much book starved as possessing largely illiterate populations. I'm not sure dumping a lot of books on them would necessarily be helpful.

There are staff issues. I worked as a student at the Brown University library, and even with an Ivy League budget they were making huge cutbacks in staff that made it hard for them to deal with a lot of issues. Still, most of the books they had to get rid of seemed to be undesired donations; the issue of library markers didn't apply, since they weren't yet library books, but it was still a serious manpower problem sorting through them. They did have an annual book sale, but some books of course didn't sell, and some of them it was obvious wouldn't sell (for example, 3rd edition of textbook in fast-changing field that's currently in its 13th edition; that sort of thing). At the time, they were putting books in dumpsters.

That's what ebay is meant for.

I wish I could understand that train wreck of a post title.

It's a pity if libraries count on Google Books to preserve the books and old periodicals that they throw out (as the article mentions), because those texts were often scanned in haste by minimum-wage earners and it is a rare online Google book that does not have at least one (or many) pages that are blurred beyond legibility, skipped entirely, misaligned with truncated text at the side margins, or obscured by the photocopied image of a gloved hand. If the online Google copy becomes the only copy in the world, some information is surely permanently lost.

Even the most deadly dull old material can still hold valuable biographical or genealogical information. Some moderately prominent figures of the Victorian era (say, industrialists and mid-level civil servants who are completely obscure today, but significant enough to warrant a small Who's Who -type listing in their day) were for whatever reason uncooperative or even hostile to compilers of biographical entries, and as a result we know remarkably little about their lives. Thanks to newly-available Google searchability of formerly paper-only sources, I was able to find the date of death of one such figure and update his Wikipedia page with the information, and it's entirely possible I was the first to ever discover this information (it was printed in an obituary notice in some utterly obscure 19th century trade publication for his industry, which would fail the once-in-25-years discard criterion with absolute certainty). A pity indeed if the scanner-manning person had bungled that one particular page.

By the way, Google searching of scanned text is much harder than you'd think, due to OCR-generated gobbledygook making it an extremely hit-and-miss process, so you have to either try literally a hundred or so permutations and combinations of multiple-search-word queries in the hope of scoring a lucky hit, or use fewer search words in each query but then plow through hundreds of pages of false-positive results, either way with stopping being more due to exhaustion rather than exhaustiveness.

"The first and most obvious objection is, why not give the books to the poor?"

because they don't read.

Why not just stamp the book with something that indicate that it is no longer library property? Like the word "SOLD." I realize that might give people an incentive to steal library books, stamp them, and sell them, but the library already has ways to prevent theft, so one would have to check out the book first and then stamp it. But if it's been checked out, then the library knows who sold the book. Once a book is stamped as sold, take it out of the library database so if someone is afraid they got an illegally stamped book and wanted to return it, the library could easily check to see if it's still on their database or not.

Am I missing something? I'm still not sure why the best approach is to just throw them away. In any case, I find that most libraries are full of employees/volunteers who don't appear to be doing much. Maybe that's less the case these days with budget cuts.

You really have two options. One, you can get a bunch of academics to scour your collection and painstakingly rate each book according to its value and importance.

I'm a librarian and I can tell you that weeding isn't that complicated. Most collection management programs can quickly generate lists of items that haven't circulated, haven't circulated since a certain date, have circulated only a certain number of times, or some combination thereof. Such a list been the starting point whenever I've done weeding.

Hiring academics to rate each book in the collection? I've never heard of any library doing that. Maybe in some highly specialized, closed-stacks library, but not in a public, school, or academic library.

Making the physical changes necessary to remove the book from the library (untagging, marking out barcodes, stamping) is a small per item labor cost. So, yeah, there is that.

Some of the problems sound more theoretical than real. Is anyone with an old library book in their possession really going to be charged with theft? And if 1% get returned by well meaning folk you still got rid of the other 99%. Let volunteers assist the sale if they can have first pick of a 100 books. In our locality it helps that the library's sale is on the same two days a year. Then again, it's a relatively small library - small setup costs to be sure.

Let the person who wants the free book do the work.

There are many books that are truly worthless. Was the dumpster filled with Quickbooks 1995 For Dummies, or Frommers Italy 2001? Most items in bookstores expire.

I wouldn't want a 2001 Frommers for Italy. On the other hand:

Why can't they enlist book-loving volunteers to stamp a big "THIS BOOK IS NO LONGER PROPERTY OF [LIBRARY NAME]" on the title page? The cost of releasing a book from library control goes down to the cost of a stamp and ink.

Have visions of my mother shredding my comic book collection back in the 70s...including some very valuable X-Men. Anyway, the point is that books aren't going to be printed and bound for many more years. There's rush to shred what will be a collectible in 30 years.

As a genuine dinosaur, I am one who has actually gone into a library to find a book that I knew was once there, only to learn that it is not anymore. I mourn the loss of the books and would like to see more effort made somehow to avoid this neo-Savonarolaism (although he burned books because they were too interesting, if in the wrong way accordng to him, rather than the other way around).

Bellwether is an entertaining story where this sort of thing is one of the minor plot points. It also makes me happy that I do not work with Flip.

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