A fellow librarian once told me something very wise that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. We were discussing the state of donations at Evanston Public Library. 

Back in the day people would leave books at the library’s back door, where our maintenance crew would retrieve and deliver them to a sorting area on the third floor.

This turned out to be a lot of additional work for our maintenance team, taking them away from their other duties in the library. In time, the decision was made to stop the library’s regular book sale, due to the sheer amount of work it piled onto our hardworking staff members.

My librarian friend and I talked about how Evanston Public Library is one of the very few libraries in the Chicago area to actually accept donations. “Well, it’s an act of charity,” he said. “We’re being charitable to people by taking their books. The library is actually providing an emotional public service.”

I thought about that. When a person goes through a regular house cleaning (or, if you’re like me, a bi-decade cleaning), that person may choose to Marie Kondo away those books that fail to give them joy.

Book bin AKA Big Green Monster. Credit: Betsy Bird

Yet every book that comes into a person’s possession has a story to tell. The thought of throwing away or even recycling a book can be truly painful to people. Far better to give such books to an institution dedicated to curating and protecting them, yes?

The trouble with this assumption is, of course, the fact that a public library is not a reference library. Adding any donation takes staff away from their other jobs and can be a drain on resources.

That isn’t to say we don’t do it. But we must be selective in what we do or do not add. And, when all is said and done, what do you do with the rest?

Happily, not long after this conversation with my friend, we came across a marvelous solution. Come to Evanston Public Library by way of Church Street, and you will see a little alleyway off Church just after you pass the library building. Sitting there, midway down the block, is what we have lovingly named the Big Green Monster.

This is a bright green bin given to us by Better World Books. Its purpose is simple. If you have a donation to give to the library, place it in the Big Green Monster, and it will swallow all your books.

Where do they go after they plunge down its proverbial gullet? Better World Books collects these donations three times a week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons) and sells them online, giving the library a cut of the profits.

Not that this solution is without problems. In spite of the red stop signs on the bin and pleas to not place public library returns in there, folks do.

Also, Evanston is a bookish community (or hadn’t you heard?). Over the weekends, folks will pull up in their cars and unload shopping bag after shopping bag of books. Better World Books has informed us that out of all their customers, nobody, and I mean nobody, provides more books than our Evanston residents.

So if you see a librarian some sunny Monday morning dumpster diving in the donations to see if any would be ideal for the collection, feel free to say hi. That’s me just skimming a little off the top. For charity’s sake.

Betsy Bird

Betsy Bird is the Collection Development Manager of Evanston Public Library. She has been writing for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.

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  1. Puzzled by last graph’s reference to “…diving into donations to see if any would be ideal for the collection.” The library’s collection–the one we can’t directly donate volumes to? Without a car, I miss being able to donate to library’s book sales as a frequent patron and instead must amass enough books to call for pickups from Books 4 Cause, Book Driver or Open Books.

  2. Some may have discovered another site for giving away books: Books 4 Cause, 3415 Madison, Skokie. They donate books to various of their contacts and claim they NEVER throw books away.

  3. It’s disappointing that EPL does not accept donated books directly. Many libraries have “Friends of” groups – volunteers – who collect books donated to the library and offer them for sale at modest prices inside the library or at an annual event. All the proceeds go to the library. In Evanston, a donated-book sale could coincide with an event, such as the farmers’ market, that already attracts a lot of people.