7 Tips for Donating Old Books Without Being A Jerk

I work at two places that accept donations of used books: a library and a bookstore that serves as a front for a non-profit. Okay, the bookstore funds the non-profit. It’s not a “front.” But “front” sounds more crime-y and thrilling.

When spring rolls around, both places are inundated with book donations. Especially now that we’ve all learned the life-saving magic of throwing away a bunch of our bullshit. (Thanks a lot, Marie Kondo. I’ll curse your name as I succumb to the sentient pile of dust mites that comes in with the 150th box of books from someone’s attic).

Donating books is a great thing to do. Most of the time.

The thing is, it can be a big help, it can make your space more calming, but you can also create more work for an organization you set out to help. If you donate books without taking a couple steps first, you can do more harm than good. Which is sort of fun in its own way, and if you wanted to be the Joker, the “let the world burn” person of your local library, I guess this is a relatively good option.

But if you really want to tidy up your life while also benefiting a local organization, here are some steps.

Do No Harm

Most of what’s here is not to be judgmental. It’s about advising you how to not hurt the organization you’re trying to help.

Harm comes to those who accept book donations in two primary ways.

First, books that cause physical damage to other books because they are physically damaged. On that note, let me tell you what you can go ahead and throw away right now. 

Anything water-damaged. That includes anything that’s moldy or has visible water damage, even if there’s no mold you can see. Water is the enemy, and even old water damage can spread molds that ruin other books and even cause sickness! Do you want to be responsible for the death of the sweet old lady who works at your library? Or the death of the strapping younger gentleman who is in generally good health but also does not want to die?

Anything you’ve smoked around. If you smoke inside your house, no offense, no judgment, but I would prefer that you keep or dispose of your books. Your books are going to make other books smell like old cigarettes, making more of the inventory more difficult to move. If you’re not sure if your books smell, ask a friend who is a good enough friend to tell you the truth.

Cat Stuff. If you have cats, and if I can tell you have cats by the smell of your books, I do not want them. I love cats. I love A cat, anyway. Here’s her picture:


This is me giving her water in the sink, which she’s totally not supposed to have. This is to prove to you that I love cats and it’s not about me not loving cats. It’s about what I can sell, and it’s about what I can shelve without wrecking more inventory.

Don’t Waste Someone’s Time

Part of the peace that comes with getting rid of old items is the act brings you closer to the acceptance that, one day, you'll have to let go of your own life.

The second way organizations are harmed by donated books is through wasted time. Donations that are not of use are a waste of an organization’s time and resources. And A LOT of the donations we get are not of use.

I know what you’re thinking, “But going through and figuring out what's good, that’s your job!”

Which is the same line of thinking that lets people leave their empty popcorn buckets in the movie theater on the floor. Is someone paid to sweep? Sure. Does that mean you should make their job more difficult? No way! That’s like hiring a dog walker and then making sure your dog doesn’t walk AT ALL until the dog walker shows up, just to make sure you’re getting the most for your money.

By the way, if you go on a movie date with someone, and if that date leaves their popcorn bucket on the theater floor, run. Or, play Time Crisis in the movie theater arcade, show your date what’s up, and THEN run.

Start By Sorting

Look at your pile of books and decide what you don’t want anymore. Make good decisions. And handle the books. Not to see if they spark joy, just to see if they spark the feeling of, “Wait, this book belongs to my kid’s school library!”

Because once you donate it, it’s gone.

I’ve seen lots of what I call “death donations” come through in my time. Donations that seem to belong to a recently deceased relative. And sometimes, when I go through those donations, I find things like photo albums. Yearbooks. Handwritten recipe cards. Things that I feel like the donor may have wanted.

Take the time to go through everything.

Things We Just Don’t Want

You might come across the rare organization that takes the items I'm about to list, probably because they’re going to mangle them for an art project or make little cutouts to hide pistols or nail files to help people break out of jail. If you support nail-file-based jailbreaks, more power to you. But for the most part, you can just keep this stuff:

We do not want Reader's Digest Condensed Editions.

We do not want old encyclopedia sets. “Old” meaning more than 5 years old.

We do not want old textbooks. If your college bookstore wouldn’t pay you anything for them, we don’t want them either.

We do not want old National Geographic magazines.

We do not want your bootleg copies of audiobooks. You’d be surprised how many of these we get and how few of them are Patrick DeWitt books.

We do not want Wild Animus.

Ask Yourself The Right Questions

Once you’ve got your pile down to the stuff you want to get rid of, and now that you’ve removed some real problem children (OH! We don’t want copies of Problem Child either), ask yourself the right question.

The right question is not “Can I conjure, in my mind, an imaginary person who might want these?” Sure, there is, in the world of pure imagination, a historian who is researching the way textbooks taught traditional and modern grammars in the late 20th century. Congratulations for conjuring her. You guys should date. She seems fascinating.

The right question is not “Can I get away with dropping these off?” At one of my locations, we have a regular who drops boxes of books at the front door, waves, and takes off. I have no idea why he has all these books he’s unloading, but every time I wish I could catch him, stop him, and tell him that he can use our book recycling bin. Just stop leaving junk at the front door.

The right question is “Would someone pay $5 for these?”

If you can answer yes to that last question, we’re good.

Call And Ask Before You Donate

Donation policies are like speed limits. Not knowing the speed limit in a particular area doesn’t get you out of a ticket.

Likewise, being purposefully unaware of the donation policies at various spots doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and find out.

Some places take certain things, and some don’t. Some places will take mass market paperbacks, some won’t. Some haven’t shoveled their share of Problem Child DVD’s, and some have wept at the waste of plastic and non-biodegradable materials used to commit that movie to disc.


If you can, bringing your donations in a vessel you don’t need to take back with you can be a big help. Sometimes the recipient appreciates the ability to go through the books at a later time. However, keep in mind that the above rules apply. Don’t bring me a box you used to store your cat pee jars.

Great. Now I Can’t Donate Anything

It’s okay. Believe me, you’re better off.

Figure out where you can recycle your stuff instead.

I know there’s a sacredness to books for most of us, but believe me, we will be able to move forward without your copy of Windows NT for Dummies.

And the dirty secret here is that if you bring in the above items, they’re going to be recycled anyway.

Part of the purpose behind tidying is to come to grips with the fact that some things are ephemeral. Things in your life, things about your life, and even you, friend, are ephemeral. Part of the peace that comes with getting rid of old items is the act brings you closer to the acceptance that, one day, you'll have to let go of your own life.

Don't cheapen that experience by forcing someone else to do the dirty work. If something needs to be tossed, have the guts to do the tossing yourself.

Image of Ablutions: Notes for a Novel
Manufacturer: Mariner Books
Part Number:

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Tankdriver mom's picture
Tankdriver mom March 29, 2017 - 8:40pm

This is all so on target.  Last week we were gifted with two sets of encyclopedias each missing a couple of volumes.  My personal favorite is opening boxes that contain rat bait amongst the books.  Thank you for making me smile.

Gita Grahame's picture
Gita Grahame March 29, 2017 - 10:38pm

This is so spot on - thank you! I work at a library. We actually have a patron who goes to garage sales, buys books and brings them to us as donations! An occasional one is even good :).

Joe Belkin's picture
Joe Belkin March 30, 2017 - 12:37am

You come off as extreme lazy, lazy, lazy idiot. You'd throw away the Guttenberg Bible because some of the gold leafing has fallen off? For a knoit all, you don;t know much. If you only want perfect items, why dont you just go to the bookstore and buy NEW items to donate, otherwise, get off your lazy ***.

Read way too much's picture
Read way too much March 30, 2017 - 9:41am

We've starteted decluttering as we're downsizing home soon and had 50 bin bags full of books that were all in excellent condition (I don't bend the pages or crack the spines of any books, it's almost painful to me!) and I asked my local hospital, hospice, old peoples homes etc. and not one bothered to let me know if they wanted any. I ended up getting in touch with a friend of mine who's involved in a few book clubs and she took the lot to give to her friends and they would swap them all around.  It's a shame for the charities as I think they could easily have got a few punds for each book as they looked straight off the shelf, but they couldn't be bothered to answer.  This article has given me a lot of ideas for the rest of the books I'll have to get rid of.


Nancy McNabb's picture
Nancy McNabb March 30, 2017 - 10:07am

As booksale chair of The Berkshire Athenaeum, thank you for writing. Everything you say is true. We just made of $17,000 on our sale because we don't sell yuck and we are organized. I would also like to add, please, if you have highlighted, underlined, written in the margins, it is a single use book. No one wants to buy a marked up book. 

Also, if you are giving a book to a friend or relative, write your sentiments to them on a nice piece of notepaper, tucked inside the book. Unless you are the author, illustrator or subject of the book, don't write in the book.

lyn callander's picture
lyn callander May 1, 2017 - 7:22am

I laughed at the description of the donated books.   I run a charity sending goods to Africa.   We are always looking for books.   However, people get very upset when I refuse things that are smelly, dirty, old, tatty.   The attitude is that I should be grateful to accept these goods and pay to deliver them to Africa.     When I am throwing out things that are absolutely useless others will pick them up like gold and take them away to another charity.   The favourite one has a dumpster outside the back door - many regular donors would find that their books are straight out the front and through the shop into the back.    I am a book lover, have many many in my house but also you have to remember that what is prized by you, bringing back memories of many years ago might just not appeal to others.

Gary Gonzalez's picture
Gary Gonzalez May 17, 2017 - 8:13am

I have donated many books in my life time, some of which I have read over and over many times but kept in excellent conditions. I love your advice here, especially the part about doing no harm. As a water damage restoration expert, I have seen the extreme damage that water can cause to anything and everything. If I may add to it, I would certainly recommend everyone to get rid of any book that may have come in contact with water. The possibility of mold growth on it is very high and as I'm sure you all already know mold can harm the health of anyone.

If anyone would like to learn more about water damage or mold and their concequences, click here to vistit my site.  

mikejacob206's picture
mikejacob206 August 6, 2017 - 10:46pm

A good place to donate your books if your in the seattle area is Donate Books Seattle


Give them a shot, they are great!